The shrinking shoreline

July 23, 2006

Maryland is home to about 205,000 registered boats - a 10 percent increase over a decade ago - and untold fleets of canoes, kayaks and skiffs, with most of them getting their bottoms wet in the Chesapeake. With more than 3,100 miles of tidal shoreline around the bay - almost equal to the distance between the East and the West coasts - it's no wonder that the region is favored by recreational paddlers, sailors and power boaters. But the shoreline is shrinking in a way that has nothing to do with erosion or global warming.

Only a small fraction of the bay's entire shoreline is accessible to the public. The reason is partly because of how our ancestors viewed the coast. Until the middle of the last century, the shore was best suited as an industrial swath for factories and fisheries. It was the place where goods were loaded onto cargo vessels and where waste from towns and cities was dumped into the water.

With the decline of the bay's industrial age, minds began to change and the water became a desirable place to be near. The state purchased bayfront land for parks and some lucky people bought farms where they built homes close to the shore - sometimes too close, as Tropical Storm Isabel reminded us. Sadly, few counties around the bay showed enthusiasm for investing taxpayer dollars in public beaches, even when prices were bargain-basement by today's standards.

Most property around the bay is private and technically off limits to boaters who want to come ashore beyond the legal limit of the high-tide line. But anyone who has gunkholed the Chesapeake for a while knows of many small beaches and landings where visitors can stretch out on a beach towel and even spend a night without ever seeing the landowner. These days are numbered.

With more coastal property being developed into homesteads for the first time, many new waterfront property owners aren't eager to share their personal getaways with uninvited guests. In Anne Arundel County, for example, recent visitors to Little Dobbins Island in the Magothy River discovered that the beach some of them had come to think of as theirs had been fenced off by the owner, who intends to build a house there. The owner is within his rights to try to keep his private property private.

But this is what's happening around the bay: There are so many Little Dobbins-like properties that, excepting for the publicly owned stretches of shoreline, the Chesapeake coast is fast becoming one vast no-trespassing zone. This doesn't have to be the case. State and county governments should acquire more waterfront using Program Open Space funds. Owners of large coastal tracts should be encouraged to turn their land over to conservation agencies or place them under easement to limit development. And, in the meantime, boaters who decide to stop a while on someone else's land should make sure their trespasses are benign.

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