- The Washington Times - Tuesday, May 8, 2001

Belle Haven Marina became home before I had even met my neighbors or hung the curtains in my new apartment just south of Old Town Alexandria. In the winter, people from the neighborhood gather on docked boats and watch ducks make circles in the ice as the sun sets over the cool, quiet Potomac. In the spring, the first ships to go down river are christened with sailing parties and barbecues for the marina family and friends. Through the summer and fall, canoes and kayaks, motorboats and sailboats make their way from the marina along the shore of Dyke Marsh and past the wooded islands keeping watch along the river. The working and middle class families who gather here are nature lovers who respect the environment, many of whom would likely not be eligible for membership at the private marinas in the Washington area.
Now the National Park Service is threatening to shut down this haven. In "public hearings" last week about the marinas future, interested citizens were told to fill out comment cards rather than allowed to voice their preferences. Unfortunately, even this venue of self-expression was soon closed to citizens as the park service ran out of comment cards.
At issue is the erosion of the shoreline by the marina, and concern about the marinas structures meeting safety codes. A 1995 study commissioned by the park service concluded that NPS would have to pay $1.5 million toward restoring the property through protective measures such as a sea wall. After unsuccessfully seeking a partnership with the Fairfax County Park Authority to take over the running of the marina, NPS gave up.
Now a three-year extension contract is up, and NPS has no desire to wait for someone else to come up with the money. Two factors make NPS actions illogical. First, funding the marina shoreline protection project is not a matter of funding. It is a matter of prioritizing. And for the National Park Service, upgrading potties in other states is more important than public access to the only marina in Washington that provides a sailing school, boat rental, canoeing and kayaking all at one location.
"The cost benefit ratio for a million plus dollars for boat slips doesnt give you the kind of bang for your buck that you would get, for instance, from Yellowstone sewer system, which services 3 million people, so its never been part of the presidents budget request to the Congress because it hasnt come up high enough in the Park Services priorities," Dottie Marshall, deputy superintendent of the George Washington Parkway region for NPS, said in an interview.
Sorry, nature lovers of Belle Haven. NPS thinks commodes at the big geyser park deserve more attention than a place locals call home.
Secondly, the $1.5 million restoration figure from 1995 has since been outdated. According to a May 8, 1998, memo obtained by The Washington Times, sent from Howard J. Guba, director of the Office of Capital Facilities of the Department of Public Works to Paul L. Baldino, acting director of Fairfax County Park Authority, NPS put the renovation figure at $601,000. Fairfax County Park Authority put it at $837,000.
Belle Haven Marina is looking for a more current estimate for the cost of a proposed alternative to renovating the property. This alternative, proposed by Friends of Belle Haven Marina, would eliminate almost all "dry storage for boats," meaning boats could not be stored out of the water. The back creek facing the marsh and the south side of the marina would not harbor boats and the front of the marina would provide three docks to further protect the area. The marina has asked state Sen. Toddy Puller of Fairfax to lobby for a site engineer to provide the estimate, and Rep. James Moran of Virginia has lobbied D.C. Delegate Eleanor Holmes Norton to use her influence to keep the marina. But there is not much time. Public comment cards with proposals, if you were lucky enough to get one, have to be submitted by June 4, and NPS hopes to make its decision by September, Mrs. Marshall said. The marina would then shut down on the first of January 2002 if no new agreement can be reached.
It may be hard to explain to NPS why public access for working and middle class people to this natural treasure is worth defending. It does not have the fancy accommodations that Washington Sailing Marina does, just north of Old Town. It does not have a restaurant, and those who dock here are more likely to drive pick-ups than BMWs. There are no politicians who own boats here, no movie stars with giant yachts. But for the Belle Haven neighbors who have made the marina staff family, and the river a regular oasis, it is home a home NPS should have no right to take away.
E-mail: [email protected]

Sarah Means is an editorial writer for The Washington Times.

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