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No Small Matter: Fort Smallwood Park provides public boating access

Construction site; courtesy of Anne Arundel County

On a large plot of land on the Patapsco River in northeastern Anne Arundel County, it is quiet. The only sounds are from the wind rustling the trees and a family of ducks swimming alone in the water.

In the distance, an excavator revs up and, nearby, a towering red crane on a water barge begins to hum—two hints that this site will be very different come spring. The future scene will be one of friends and families on boats or lone anglers wading into the water.

Welcome to the Department of Natural Resources’ top priority boating and public access project: Fort Smallwood Park.

Federal, state and local partners have spent years conducting research, planning, securing funding and permits, and clearing the site. And now construction of a new two-lane boat ramp has officially begun at the 90-acre park located in Pasadena, across the river from Baltimore.

Built as a sea coast defense in the late 1880s, Fort Smallwood is named for Revolutionary War Maj. Gen. William Smallwood, who later became governor of Maryland. Directly across the mouth of the Patapsco River is another fort built during the same era, Fort Howard. They were established to protect Baltimore Harbor from invasion but now serve the public as parks.

Holding down the fort
Jim Rehak, the marine contractor selected for the project, wipes his brow as he looks over the site.

“We are starting to put in sheeting today that will be used as a breakwater to protect the harbor, making it easier and safer for boaters to launch,” he comments. “We are going with steel instead of vinyl now and you all should be happy about that. It will hold-up so much longer.”

Anne Arundel County has more than 400 miles of tidal shoreline along the Chesapeake Bay and almost 12,000 registered trailered vessels. It has more demand for boating access than any other county or city in the state, but only two public boating access facilities. However, neither Sandy Point State Park nor Truxton Park, both near Annapolis, are owned by the county nor convenient for northern county residents.

“For many years, we have been seeking an opportunity to increase boating access in Anne Arundel County,” says Mark O’Malley, director of boating. “This project is highly anticipated by the state, the county and the many boaters who currently have to travel significant distances in order to launch.”

Location, location, location
Choosing Fort Smallwood as the location was the result of a one-year planning effort involving monthly meetings with a citizen’s advisory committee and a public assembly to obtain final comments. The site will serve residents of Anne Arundel, Baltimore and Howard counties as well as Baltimore City.

“We are excited to see the finished product of this endeavor: a boat ramp on the Patapsco River that affords easy water access to the Baltimore City Inner Harbor, as well as fishing grounds and ports of call within the northern and middle Chesapeake Bay regions,” says Director of Boating Implementation, Carla Fleming. “This project is a game-changer for Maryland boaters and anglers and demonstrates what can happen when federal, state and local partners work together.”

Construction; courtesy of Anne Arundel County

Partnering for progress
The total approved cost of the boating access facility portion of the project is more than $2 million, which will be split between federal Sport Fish Restoration – Boating Access funds, state Waterway Improvement funds, and a combination of state Program Open Space and Anne Arundel County General Obligation Bond funds.

The area will have 470 feet of additional breakwater (to help ensure that launchings are done safely), additional parking, mechanical dredging, floating piers, navigational lights, environmentally friendly stormwater drainage systems, an access road and lighting, landscaping and paved trails. The planning committee expects more than 14,000 boat launches a year after the open in spring 2016.

“The facility is an important step for Anne Arundel County as we carry out County Executive Steve Schuh’s initiative to provide boat ramps on all our major rivers,” says Rick Anthony, director of Anne Arundel County Department of Recreation and Parks. “This project demonstrates the many benefits of partnerships. The financial and technical support from DNR and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service has been tremendous. The Fort Smallwood ramp will provide a state-of-the-art launch facility for our residents and our many visitors.”

Easing access
To accommodate all of these new visitors, additional parking for 48 tow vehicles and trailers will be added to the park. The park, which features picnic shelters, restrooms, a playground, a kayak and canoe launch, and the 380-foot Bill Burton fishing pier, dedicated to the late outdoor sportswriter.

A plaque on the pier includes a quote from Burton: “As a parting favor to me, take a kid fishing and you might just find it as satisfying for you as it is for your pupil. More important, if the budding angler maintains interest, he or she will come to appreciate conservation and the environment—and insist on a cleaner and more ecological-friendly state, nation and world.”

Perhaps the new boat ramp adjacent to this pier—another gateway to the Bay for current and future Marylanders—will help fulfill Burton’s call to create the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts and environmental stewards. One thing is certain: come spring, many happy boaters and anglers will be heading towards Fort Smallwood, poles and trailers in tow.


Article by Kristen Peterson—senior manager of strategic communications.
Appears in Vol. 18, No. 4 of the Maryland Natural Resource magazine, fall 2015.