Crabbing about watermen

Conflict: Newcomers and traditional fishermen in Arundel are caught up in a clash of cultures.

May 29, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Waterman Bill Scerbo bought a piece of waterfront property at the end of West River Road in Shady Side six years ago, hoping it would make his life easier. He could store his gear at home, land seafood on his dock and occasionally sell crabs to the friends and neighbors who call ahead for a dozen or two.

It's the traditional way of working the bay in the small communities of southern Anne Arundel County - but it's illegal, and it's drawing complaints from newcomers drawn to South County for the area's waterside views.

That's why Scerbo is leading the push to change the county zoning laws.

"Neighborhoods are changing in the area, especially along the waterfront, where you're getting fairly wealthy people moving in," said Scerbo, 41, who sets out from the West River in his 36-foot work boat, Elfie, to crab the Chesapeake Bay.

"And in most instances, you have people moving in who aren't familiar with commercial fishing.

"The way things are now, they can complain and get watermen and their operations moved out of the neighborhood legally," he said.

The watermen's precarious legal footing came into sharp focus in South County three years ago, when a neighbor's complaint to the county zoning office forced a 68-year-old man to stop selling crabs from his Shady Side home- something he'd done nearly all his life. He also had to build a wooden fence around his crabbing equipment to screen it from neighbors' views.

"That really alarmed some of us," said Scerbo, who has been crabbing for 20 years. "He was a pretty small-time operation."

His wife, Linda Andreasen, president of the Shady Side Peninsula Association, said that the future of watermen in the area may depend on securing legal protection for their work.

"The real question is, `Do watermen still belong in this county?' and if they do, there has to be some provision to let them do what they do" she said. "It's not an industry where they can afford to rent storage for gear."

Scerbo added, "It's not like you can rent a corner in a marina somewhere, because they don't want commercial fishing boats there."

For 15 years Scerbo docked his boat at a marina on Rockhold Creek, and stored his crabbing gear at his Fairhaven home and the house of a friend.

But worries that he could lose his slip at the whim of the marina landlord motivated him to seize the opportunity to buy waterfront property in Shady Side. There, he could tie up at the end of his pier.

Scerbo has about 600 crab pots in the water, and sells most of his catch to crabhouses and restaurants in the Washington area. He sells the rest to some longtime customers, filling baskets with crabs from a walk-in refrigerator in a shed in his back yard.

The idea to legalize watermen's home operations emerged more than two years ago as part of the county's Small Area Plan for the Deale/Shady Side area, put together by a committee of area residents and approved by the County Council in June of last year.

Bordered on the east by the Chesapeake Bay and surrounded by the rolling, semirural lands of South County, the region consists of a collection of small communities on marshy peninsulas, with miles of shoreline and numerous navigable creeks.

While the area has become less hospitable to watermen, it's thriving as a center for sport fishing and recreational boating and as an attractive bedroom community for white-collar commuters to Annapolis, Baltimore and Washington - some of whom aren't as charmed by the sights of crab pots and the smells of seafood as they are by views of the bay.

From 1980 to 2000, the area's population grew by half, from 7,399 to 11,116.

About the time the small-area plan was approved, Scerbo and a half-dozen watermen from South County first met with county zoning officials to make their case for a zoning amendment that would address watermen's work and take into account the aesthetic concerns of nearby residents.

Scerbo has since led the effort, and he met again with land-use officials last month.

Under the current county zoning ordinance, professional offices, a florist or nursery operation, a seamstress or tailoring service and a massage practice are among the businesses that can be home-based. They must be conducted within the home and no outside storage is permitted, according to the county code.

Watermen are seeking to be included in the list of businesses that can legally operate from home, but with restrictions on days and times for selling seafood and guidelines that would require them to screen gear stored at the home.

"We're exploring creating a zoning amendment that would address the storage and sales issues, but would respect what we're hearing from people that would be neighbors of that kind of use," said Pam Jordan, spokeswoman for the county's land use office.

Scerbo said that during the meetings with the county, he's had to educate zoning officials on the ways of watermen.

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