Life in bayside park getting complicated

Caretakers: A resident couple who tend an Arundel park face an ethics inquiry about accepting money from neighbors to cover the rent.

July 31, 2002|By Lynn Anderson | Lynn Anderson,SUN STAFF

Carol and Marion Coomes' backyard view - a wide-angle shot that includes the South River and famous Thomas Point lighthouse - is one many Marylanders would kill for.

As caretakers of Thomas Point Park, the couple have lived for the past 16 years in a 1920s log cabin with a fireplace large enough to roast a small pig. For most of that time they paid no rent, a good deal in a neighborhood where houses sell quickly for $1 million.

But two years ago, Anne Arundel County officials decided to begin collecting rent. And when the retirees complained about having to shell out $900 a month, neighbors pitched in, cutting their housing costs virtually in half.

Now, an ethics inquiry could force the couple to abandon their world-class view as well as the wooded shoreline they have nurtured for more than a decade.

The county Ethics Commission is investigating a complaint about the couple's rent-sharing arrangement. Ethics Director Betsy K. Dawson interviewed the couple Monday and asked them for complete lists of those who help pay their rent as well as park permit holders.

Given Dawson's questions, the Coomeses said yesterday that they can only assume there is suspicion that they set aside some of those much-sought-after permits for those who help pay their rent.

The county's ethics code prohibits employees from accepting gifts from those who might expect a favor in return.

The Coomeses, who have been married 32 years and have lived at county park facilities since they were newlyweds, vehemently deny any favoritism.

"I don't even know who contributes to the rent," said Carol Coomes. The couple earn about $25,000 a year for their caretaker duties, which include picking up trash, mowing grass and keeping the dirt road that leads to the park covered with erosion-reducing gravel.

Dawson, of the Ethics Commission, declined to comment on the specifics of the investigation yesterday. She couldn't say exactly when the seven-member commission might release its decision.

Thomas Point Park is a 44-acre property with stunning views of the Bay Bridge, not to mention the lighthouse, the last working screwpile structure still at its original site. The park is considered by many to be the county's best-kept secret.

But word of the park's excellent fly fishing and stellar picnic potential has spread, and monthly permits sell out within an hour.

"They go as fast as I can write them," Carol Coomes said of the permits, which sell for $10 each and are limited to 60 a month. "People line up two hours before we open."

Only a small percentage of those who line up for permits are local residents, said Ron Wilner, a Baltimore resident who owns a home five doors down from Thomas Point Park.

"We thought this was a wonderful example of a private-public partnership," Wilner said. "We looked at it as a way to maintain a public treasure. I half expected the county executive to come down and give residents an award."

County officials who insist the Coomeses pay rent just like any other on-site park ranger take a different view.

"Two years ago, there was no set rule about how a caretaker paid rent," Recreation and Parks Director Dennis Callahan said yesterday. "Now, if you live at a park, you pay rent."

Caretakers at county parks weren't always required to pay rent, but a 1999 report by the county auditor highlighted the need for a new policy.

Today, caretakers at all county parks pay rent except for those at Quiet Waters Park in Annapolis, Downs Memorial Park in Lake Shore, and Lake Waterford Park and Kinder Farm Park, both in Pasadena.

Should those rangers transfer or retire, however, their replacements will either pay rent or live off-site, Callahan said.

Countywide, there are 11 parks with caretaker residences. Of those, only seven are occupied by county employees.

"I thought [the Coomes' arrangement] was very unusual," Callahan said.

Callahan said he wondered whether Thomas Point neighbors knew that the couple had a second home in Davidsonville.

"I can see how someone would think it was a conflict," he said. "The rental subsidy should be reported to the IRS as income."

The Coomeses, who allow almost anyone into the park with or without a permit, said the Davidsonville house is their retirement home.

Carol Coomes' brother rents the house now.

After three decades of public park life, which Carol Coomes compares to living in a fish bowl, the couple had made plans to retire in November 2003.

But with the ethics investigation further stirring debate, they might give up their wooded paradise with its overlook of the whitecaps of the South River, for a gated back yard in suburbia.

"If we have to pay the full rent, we'll leave," said Marion Coomes, a quiet man who has been known to escort tourists to a bald patch of earth at the tip of Thomas Point to snap photos of the lonely screwpile lighthouse.

"We just can't do it."

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