Boaters, city planners clash
over lakefront access

The following story was published in The Plain Dealer on July 3, 2004.

By Tom Breckenridge
Plain Dealer Reporter

Cleveland planners are headed for a showdown with the marinas and yacht clubs that dot the public lakefront with tall fences and imposing security gates.

City officials say they want the gates open and the fences down within five years, so taxpayers can enjoy lake vistas and touch the water's edge.

"We feel it's time to exercise the public's right to the waterfront," said city Planning Director Chris Ronayne. "This is not privately owned property."

But an entrenched boating community won't easily give up its exclusive access to the shoreline.

Besides decades of sweat equity, the marina and boat-club operators have invested big bucks in facilities and boats they fear will be robbed and vandalized if the public comes in.

It's not just private boat owners arguing the point. The state runs marinas at Edgewater Park and East 55th Street that are fenced and gated, allowing in only dock holders and their guests.

"It would be nice that if anyone who wanted access did so with the purest of intentions," said Scott Zody, deputy director for the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. "The fact is, if you leave those areas open for access at any time to anyone, you're going to have problems."

Tension has grown between the city and boating community the last two years, as Mayor Jane Campbell's administration crafts a 50-year master plan to bridge railroad tracks, highways and other barriers to connect city neighborhoods with the lake.

Barriers include the fencing at eight marinas and boat clubs along seven miles of lakefront, from Edgewater Park to Gordon Park.

The rolling green of Edgewater Park stops abruptly at Edgewater Yacht Club, where perimeter fencing is topped with barbed wire to the south.

To the east of downtown, along North Marginal Road, chain-link fencing, trees and brush border several yacht clubs, including Lakeside and Forest City. The fences obscure views of the lake, as do long rows of boats in dry storage.

"Instead of beautiful views of water and boats, we have an ugly, hostile view of security fencing," said David Beach, director of EcoCity Cleveland, a nonprofit environmental group. "Our marinas are just so ugly, it's an insult to the rest of Cleveland."

Yacht club and marina operators say they are only worried about safety.

"The fences aren't there to keep the general public out," said Jay Onacila, spokesman for the Greater Cleveland Boating Association, which represents yacht clubs and marinas. "It's to keep out the theft and vandalism."
Hard-hitting opinions and inflamed passions are the norm in the public-access debate among boating clubs and city planners.

When he talks about marina fencing, Ronayne sounds like the late President Reagan calling for the Berlin Wall's demolition.

"Tear back those walls," Ronayne said in an interview last week. "Unbuild the barriers artificially positioned between the land side and the water side."

The master plan's foremost priority, Ronayne said, is connecting the public with a pleasing lakefront.

Early versions of the plan called for basins at Forest City and Lakeside clubs to be filled for park space and for the yacht clubs to be relocated. That sparked angry protests from club members, and the idea was scrapped for new plans presented publicly last week.

But the plans continue to show public trails and access through the lakefront's marinas and yacht clubs.

Most of the lakefront's six privately held boat clubs and marinas are members-only, nonprofit ventures that operate under leases on city- or state-owned land. Most are long-time fixtures. The oldest is Edgewater Yacht Club, founded in 1914.

Combined with the two state-run marinas, the clubs offer more than 1,800 slips and spin off millions of dollars for the economy.

But the public can't get in. A recent drive-by of the eight marinas showed only Whiskey Island Marina with an open gate.

City planners say open access to clubs and marinas will not put boats in peril. They point to lakefronts along other Great Lakes cities, where the public strolls along marina docks but is kept from boat slips by security gates at pier entrances.

"Are things that much more dangerous here?" asked EcoCity's Beach. "I don't think so. The marinas in Cleveland have to get rid of their bunker mentality."

Besides, public activity dissuades criminals, planners said.
The marinas and clubs don't agree. Their operators say boats are full of sophisticated electronics that thieves desire.

"Some of these boats are very expensive, from $60,000 up to $2 million," said Jim Travarca, harbor master at Lakeside Yacht Club.

Fencing protects boaters and the multimillion-dollar investment of tax money at the two state-run marinas, said ODNR's Zody.

Ronayne wants to open talks in the fall with the boaters. If they resist the city's desire for more access, the Campbell administration would consider new zoning or starting a license system for boat clubs that would give the city sway over design and access, Ronayne said.

This battle was fought once before, and the boaters won.
In 1978, a cash-poor Cleveland wanted to lease its lakefront lands to the state, which had more money to invest in the parks and marinas. State officials wanted greater control of the private clubs, including removal of the fences, said Norman Krumholz, the city's former planning director and now a professor at Cleveland State University.

But boaters got the ear of several key council members, who approved the lease with the state only after the clubs were left alone.

"It's always a good time to try to move the public as close as possible to the water," Krumholz said. "If you fail once, you've got to come back at it and try again."

© 2004 The Plain Dealer


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"Instead of beautiful views of water and boats, we have an ugly, hostile view of security fencing," said David Beach, director of EcoCity Cleveland, a nonprofit environmental group. "Our marinas are just so ugly, it's an insult to the rest of Cleveland."


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