Maryland legislators propose to consolidate Chesapeake Bay historic sites into a national park
If draft legislation is approved by federal lawmakers, a cluster of green spaces and historic sites near the Chesapeake Bay would transform into a national park known as the Chesapeake National Recreation Area. Maryland’s congressional delegation, joined by state and local officials, unveiled the draft legislation on Monday. It is open for public comment for the next 90 days until it’s submitted to Congress.
The area would create a network of historically significant sites around the bay under National Park Service control. The officials made the announcement in front of Burtis House, the last watermen’s house in what is now the toney City Dock area of Annapolis, but once was a raffish neighborhood known as Hell’s Point.
State Sen. Sarah Elfreth, a Democrat who lives barely a block away, spoke of the importance of the network.
“Having a national park right here in the heart of Annapolis, in the heart of a neighborhood that once reflected the diversity and strength in the city of Annapolis, and the ability to tell that story right here at the City Dock for hundreds of thousands of visitors who visit every single year is an incredible opportunity that we just cannot pass up,” she said.
The legislation was drafted by a working group of lawmakers from Maryland and Virginia as well as representatives of a wide-ranging coalition of environmental and citizens’ groups. Under the plan, the National Park Service initially would become partners with, or buy, Burtis House in Annapolis, Whitehall, a colonial era mansion north of Annapolis, Thomas Point Shoal Light at the mouth of the South River and the North Beach of Fort Monroe in Virginia. It would be allowed to acquire other properties through voluntary donations or by buying them from a willing seller.
U.S. Sen. Chris Van Hollen, a Democrat, said the designation would create opportunities for the people of the Bay region.
“A unified designation will open more parts of the bay to the public, which is a big win for all of our communities, especially those who have traditionally lacked access to the bay,” Van Hollen said. “Over 90% of the Chesapeake Bay shoreline is privately owned. We need to make sure that the public has access in the points that we can provide access.”
In addition, it would help tell the stories of the Bay.
“It's going to highlight the bay's culture by telling the stories of indigenous people, women free and enslaved black people, the role of the Chesapeake Bay in the early days of the Maryland Virginia colonies, and the role the Bay has played in our regional economy,” he said.
Vince Leggett, founder and president of the Blacks of the Chesapeake Foundation, called the legislation a “sea change” that “constitutes a bellwether moment.”
“The passage of this legislation will allow us to produce a string of pearls of black African American sites around the Chesapeake Bay celebrating people, places and things that heretofore have been underreported or erased,” Leggett said. “This gives us an opportunity to advance so many voices that have been in the shadows.”
U.S. Rep. John Paul Sarbanes, a Democrat, whose father, U.S. Sen. Paul Sarbanes, had been part of an earlier similar effort, called the legislation the work of a group of “Bay champions.”
“We all know here that the Chesapeake Bay is a natural treasure and is a national treasure,” Sarbanes said. “And having the opportunity for the park service to create a unit that lifts up the bay is something we didn't want to miss.”
Van Hollen and Sarbanes said they have bipartisan support.
Officials said the draft legislation would not impose any additional regulations on commercial business activities in the Chesapeake Bay or allow the federal park service to use eminent domain to purchase land from unwilling landowners.
Editors Note: This story has been updated to accurately describe the location of Thomas Point Shoal Light.