WITTMAN — After Talbot County issued more than a handful of expensive parking tickets to kayakers, a number of them have begun protesting the lack of available spaces for vehicles with smaller watercraft at local public boat ramps, hoping to change county policy and provide more equitable water access.

A kayaking group, led by Eugene Lopez, was surprised in early August when $50 tickets were attached to eight of their vehicles upon returning Wednesday morning from a weekly kayak on the Choptank River.

The tickets had been issued by the Talbot County Department of Parks and Recreation. An officer cited them for parking in spaces reserved for boat trailers at Wittman’s public boat ramp.

Lopez complained to the county shortly afterward, explaining there was a lack of signage deeming the spots unavailable for non-permit holders.

The eight tickets were rescinded and the county said it was a mistake to issue them, but the close call has alarmed the kayakers and sparked an effort to change the policy at the county’s public boat ramps.

“We have used these ramps frequently from March through November for at least the last eight years,” Lopez wrote in a letter signed by nine other kayakers. “In all of that time, we have never had issues with finding places to park at ramps, at least until Parks & Rec recently limited parking so severely.”

This summer, the Department of Parks and Recreation launched a tougher policy of enforcing parking at eight of its boat ramps: Wye Mills, Oak Creek, Neavitt, Easton Point, Dogwood Harbor, Wittman, Claiborne and Bellevue, all of which have 45-foot parking spaces reserved for permit holders with boat trailers. The permits cost $45.

In response to a number of callers complaining about vehicles without trailers and permits parking in the spaces, the county erected new signs at those locations — and Parks and officers are also stepping up patrols to enforce the rules.

The increased enforcement has led to some kayakers calling out the county for favoring motorized boaters and watercraft over kayakers and canoers, which they say is creating inequity at the boat ramps.

Matt Pluta, the Choptank riverkeeper at ShoreRivers, and an avid kayaker, said “equitable access at Talbot County landings does not exist because of their new parking restrictions.”

“By restricting parking at all the county landings to boat trailers only, the county is taking a position that the only people who deserve to use the landings are those who can afford a boat, completely restricting access for other water users (kayakers, canoes, paddle boarders), and low-income individuals,” he wrote in an email. “Similarly, the county’s new parking regime at landings restricts anyone from the general public, except those with a boat trailer, from even going to a landing and parking to watch the water, the wildlife, or even just a sunset.”

Preston Peper, the Parks and Rec director, defended the department’s decision to enforce parking restrictions. He said about 100 people have called in the past couple of years, complaining about non-permit holders parking in the large spaces.

While the county’s 26 public ramps are open to everyone, parking spaces at the water access points are limited.

Many of the spots are reserved for boat slip holders and others are reserved for the permit holders with trailers. The limited spaces make it hard for large kayaking groups to get together, especially in the face of increased enforcement.

Few to zero single-vehicle spaces — which don’t require a permit — are available at six of the ramps, according to kayakers. Those are at Neavitt, Claiborne, Oak Creek/Newcomb, Dogwood Harbor, Easton Point, and Wittman.

Lopez’s group of roughly 20 kayakers are fighting to get Parks and Rec to implement more single vehicle parking spaces at the public boat ramps.

“The guys have decided not to kayak in Talbot County because they’re afraid of getting tickets,” said Lopez. “This (policy) makes it a lot harder (for everyone). I could imagine somebody who just wants to go and fish there. And if they drive their car, they’d probably find it hard to fish off the pier or fish off the ramp.”

In addition to creating more single vehicle spaces, Lopez’s group is pushing the county to remove 50% of the permit-holding signs at the eight ramps that host the trailer parking spots, arguing that the spaces are used by only a few people at each ramp.

Peper said Parks and Rec is looking to increase the number of parking spaces for non-permit holders and single vehicle spaces.

“There is limited parking at all boat landings, and parks for that matter. The ratio of single car to trailer car parking spaces varies from landing to landing,” he wrote in an email, adding that the department doesn’t want to scare off the public. “They do not need to kayak out of county; however, much like handicapped parking spaces, must park in areas that are not reserved for specific groups.”

In the meantime, the Parks and Rec department is still enforcing the rules aggressively. The department has one full time officer and two part time officers, in addition to the newly posted signage.

Pluta, from ShoreRivers, said the increased enforcement from the department comes at a bad time. During the pandemic, more people want to use outdoor recreational facilities. The county is sending the wrong message, he added.

“The new signage at the landings restricting anyone from parking without a boat trailer permit is going to force people, especially those who travel a good distance to come here to use these waterways, to park illegally at the landing and get a ticket (or) park illegally near the landing and likely on private property, causing even more problems and conflicts and probably still get a ticket,” he said. “Or pack up and leave and regret the decision of traveling to Talbot County, thinking they can access the river.”

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