Ocean City Today

Petition to keep island in bay open faces uphill battle

Boaters to be barred during nesting season; DNR will enforce closure with tickets
By Brian Gilliland | Aug 13, 2015
The island in question does not look like this

(Aug. 14, 2015) Raising a flag on a deserted island just doesn’t have the impact it used to.

Such is the case of the manmade pile of sand in the middle of the Isle of Wight known formally as Collier’s Island. It was created last year out of dredge spoil, recognized early this season as a fun place to beach a boat and play and did have the stars and stripes hoisted above it. Yet, it belongs to the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, which has other plans.

Ocean City bays have to be dredged to keep them navigable, since the 1933 storm that cut the inlet and all the storms in the intervening years move sand to places inconvenient for the local boaters, anglers and commercial fishing enterprises.

This particular island’s creation came about as the answer to the standard question: what to do with the dredge material. Sometimes it is redeposited on the beaches, sometimes it is trucked to another location and sometimes it is used to create islands.

In 1964, Maryland law established that all islands created in the Isle of Wight, Sinepuxent and Chincoteague bays belong to the DNR and are to be used for conservation purposes.

That was the idea behind Collier’s Island, which the DNR plans to use as a waterbird nesting ground.

“The reason people can go on the island now is because it wasn’t finished — birds didn’t nest there,” Sandi Smith, development and marketing coordinator for the Maryland Coastal Bays program, said.

As such, when the island is expected to be finished next year, the DNR intends to close it to human traffic during nesting season, known in Ocean City terms as “summer,” or, more precisely, from April 1 to Sept. 15.

This year, however, dozens of boats can be spotted beached or anchored there during peak hours. Earlier this year someone installed a flagpole more than 10 feet tall and outfitted it with LED lights on the island to fly the star spangled banner.

“This is just Sandi Smith, a 30-year resident, talking but I don’t see why anyone would think it’s OK to install a cement slab and flagpole here when they wouldn’t do it on Assateague or the Ocean City beach,” Smith said.

Learning of the intent to close the island to recreational boaters, resident Chuck Idol began circulating a petition to keep the island open to recreational traffic.

“This small island has taken a massive amount of pressure off other areas. There are so many different ways to approach this and it seems like we’re trying the same thing over and over,” Idol said.

Idol contends boaters feel travelling under the Harry Kelley Bridge is dangerous and that this island is perfectly suited to recreational traffic. This island is accessible to boats on all sides, when others such as the sandbar in front of Hooper’s crab house in West Ocean City can be trickier.

“Really we want to be a part of the community and solution — this is such a positive unplanned outcome from a dredging event. Handled properly, I see it as generating lots of revenue and good will for Ocean City and surrounding areas as well as the birds,” Idol said in a prepared statement.

The use of the word “unplanned,” however, would likely earn a strong rebuttal from the DNR, considering that it established back in 1998 how manmade islands here were to be used.

It happened that the money to fund the dredging did not become available until two years ago as part of the Hurricane Sandy recovery.

Because the funding can be traced back to tax dollars, the petitioners contend they should not disqualified from using the island since they helped, in part, to fund its creation.

“If people wanted a party spot in the bay one could be created — dredging is ongoing. They can have the meetings and go through the process. To me, it’s fairer than squatter’s rights,” Smith said.

The department of natural resources favors Smith’s view.

“DNR regularly enforces exclusion areas and time-of-year restrictions on state-owned lands. We always aim primarily to educate the public about laws and regulations before citing infractions, but DNR can charge persons who willfully or repeatedly violate the law,” Kristen Peterson, senior manager of strategic communications for the DNR, said.

County Commissioner Bud Church had been contacted by Idol for support, however Church said his hands are tied.

“The county has no jurisdiction over the island. I understand where [Idol is] coming from, but my feeling is the environmentalists will win out. It’s possible the birds won’t nest there, but if they do John Q. Citizen will have an uphill battle,” Church said.

That battle may include citations.

“There is no exclusion window for endangered species in effect on the island in question for 2015. The Natural Resources Police will be enforcing boating and safety laws in the area, especially when large numbers of boaters aggregate there,” Peterson said.

Smith said this discussion reminded her of the decision to close Skimmer Island, located just north of the Route 50 bridge, in the 1980s.

“People were saying it would ruin the town,” Smith said, alluding to the growth in resort tourism since that time.

Though the official comment period on the use of this island has long since expired, Peterson said the DNR is still receptive.

“We welcome feedback from all stakeholders. Email: customerservice.dnr@maryland.gov,” she said.


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