SAINT GEORGES, Del. — Chris Whitehead has been hunting and fishing on Dragon Run near St. Georges for 25 years now.
His father turned him on to the area just off the Clarks Corner Road bridge when he was a young boy, and Whitehead has begun taking his son there, too.
That all ended in October when a bridge reconstruction project closed a small gravel boat landing adjacent to the bridge.
For more than 30 years, the landing has allowed outdoorsmen and recreation lovers like Whitehead to take advantage of Delaware’s natural beauty in an area surrounded by urban sprawl.
While nobody knows who first put the gravel landing there or who maintains it, generations of hunters, fishermen and outdoor lovers have launched their boats, canoes and kayaks from there.
The Delaware Department of Transportation says it will not restore the landing when the bridge project is finished.
“It’s a small natural resource area and the ramp has been here for more than 30 years,” said Whitehead, of Middletown. “I’ve been coming back here more than 25 years. I used to come out here as a kid canoeing and fishing and I’ve been bringing my son to do the same.”
Whitehead says there are a lot of people who bring their kids down to the area. He said landowners have leased land to hunters placing their duck blinds along Dragon Run are also affected by the decision.
“It’s a shame to see it go away,” Whitehead said. “There are no other waterway accesses. Either you come in off of private property or here. That’s it.”
DelDOT is aware of the outcry by those who would like to see the landing remain. But they say it was never an approved boat ramp to begin with, and because of safety requirements it must go.
“We believe it is something that a property owner may have installed themselves,” said DelDOT Director of Community Relations C.R. McLeod. “As this was not an officially recognized boat ramp, DelDOT could not justify maintaining it.”
McLeod gave a number of reasons for the decision, including the lack of a designated pull-off area for vehicles.
He said the biggest reason is the existing guardrail on the bridge near the boat ramp is not compliant with American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials standards.
“From an engineering standpoint, we had to extend the guardrail to meet safety requirements or no professional engineer would put their stamp on the plans and assume that liability,” he said. “The length of guardrail that is being placed is the minimum required length that has been crash-tested and therefore approved for safety by Federal Highways.
“The safety of the traveling public has to be our number one priority,” he said.
McLeod also said creating a new boat ramp would require heavy impact to a wetland area that is home to several endangered species, including the bog turtle.
He said the scope of the bridge project has already required extensive environmental permitting.
Whitehead and a few of his buddies who gathered at the site recently said they understand the impacts but believe something can still be worked out. They aren’t ready to give up the fight.
“We’re not asking for more. We’re just asking that they don’t take the little that we have,” said Jacob Olszewski, of Middletown, who has been launching his small boat there for many years. “Once it is gone, it is never going to come back. What happens to all of the resources Delaware is supposed to be famous for? We don’t want extra, we just want them to leave what is here alone so we can continue to enjoy it.”
Whitehead said there is good waterfowl hunting about a mile or more from the landing site, and if the boat ramp is taken, the only access will be from private land. He and others say that would be a nightmare.
Dave Holloway, a Middletown outdoorsman who hunts with Whitehead and Olszewski, agreed, saying there is not always easy access and landowners frown upon you driving through their yards and digging ruts.
“This was the perfect answer right here,” he said. “It was small, it wasn’t anything elaborate, but it was easy access to those who needed to get in there, including landowners.”
Jack and Elayne Tomb own property on Cox Neck Road that butts up to Dragon Run. They have been leasing land to Whitehead and others to have a place to hunt, fish and recreate. They say it is a shame DelDOT isn’t considering keeping the boat landing.
The couple sent a letter to Gov. John Carney in hopes of shedding some light on the problem and getting some answers.
“We’ve been in New Castle County for 27 years and we have seen the tremendous growth in the area and it is nice to save some of this for the people who know how to take care of it,” Jack said. “Chris and another gentleman have been leasing their blind and they get access going down right through (the boat landing). They have been excellent keepers of the land.”
The Tombs say the landing was really the only access for miles around for anybody to get a boat in Dragon Run.
In an email response to the Tomb’s concerns, the governor’s office said that DelDOT coordinated with DNREC, local EMTs, public and the state internal sections concerning this project and did extensive outreach throughout the design of this project.
None of the outdoorsmen or landowners chimed in, the state said.
“During the two years of design and coordination, no one claimed ownership of the boat ramp and there was no evidence of an entrance permit,” the governor’s office said. “We created a project website and held a virtual workshop during design so that we could notify the public and listen to concerns. We are now about to begin construction, and we cannot justify a scope change at this time.”
According to DelDOT, the project will be complete by early January and Clarks Corner Road will then be reopened between Cox Neck Road and Wrangle Hill Road.
The state also said in its email to the Tombs that environmental impacts had to be considered and that if a boat ramp were to be reconstructed, it would have delayed “the much-needed project” and increased the cost.
Whitehead said he realizes efforts to keep the boat ramp are a longshot.
And if it doesn’t succeed, the Middletown man will embark on a hunt of a different kind.
“We’re going to try real hard to find someone like Jack and Elayne who will allow us to hunt on their private property,” Olszewski said. “But you are better off finding a chunk of gold in the street. It’s very, very difficult finding that person and that situation.”
Information from: The News Journal of Wilmington, Del., http://www.delawareonline.com