Assateague Island
Administrative History
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Chapter I:

Renewed Federal Interest, 1962—1963

Just two months before the great March 1962 storm, the federally sponsored Outdoor Recreation Resources Review Commission had issued yet another report on the need for additional shoreline recreation areas to serve America's growing, mobile, urban population. The storm, which had undone much of the development for which Assateague had been discounted in the 1955 National Park Service survey report and which augured ill for future private investment, galvanized Secretary of the Interior Stewart L. Udall to revive the prospect of Federal acquisition. Udall enlisted the support of Maryland Governor J. Millard Tawes for "a joint study to determine the best use of Assateague (as if the Federal position were not predetermined). [15]

The "joint study" was in fact an Interior Department product, with its new Bureau of Outdoor Recreation (BOR) receiving top billing in the resulting report and its National Park Service and Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife (Fish and Wildlife Service) playing supporting roles. Issued in April 1963, the report recommended establishment of an Assateague Island National Seashore under the Park Service, encompassing the entire island. To avert opposition from the Maryland Department of Forests and Parks and the Bureau of Sport Fisheries and Wildlife, Assateague State Park and Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge would retain their individual identities under their separate administrations. The island would be developed for both intensive (concentrated) and extensive (dispersed) day use; off-island private enterprise would be depended on for food, lodging, and other such facilities. All private holdings would be acquired with limited tenure for owners of improved properties. The state park could expand to cover the northern nine miles of Assateague unless the state were willing to relinquish this area to the Federal Government.

In accordance with recent legislation authorizing compatible recreational use of national wildlife refuges, Chincoteague National Wildlife Refuge would be managed for appropriate general recreation as an integral part of the national seashore. The Federal Government would acquire the interests of the existing Chincoteague—Assateague Bridge and Beach Authority, which had built a bridge to the south end of Assateague and a road thence to the beach at Toms Cove Hook under Federal lease in 1962. This bridge and the Sandy Point (Sinepuxent Neck) bridge under construction in Maryland would serve for public access to the seashore. The original edition of the report called for a limited—capacity road down the island linking the bridges; reference to this road was deleted in a subsequent printing. [16]

Appended to the BOR report was a contract study by Robert R. Nathan Associates, "Impact of Development of Assateague Island." The Nathan report argued against the feasibility of private development. It noted that the construction of sufficient protective dunes would obliterate most oceanfront lots where private equity was greatest and would be unaffordable by the landowners. (With private ownership, the Army Corps of Engineers would pay no more that half the cost of such protection.) It pointed up the need for an expensive sewer system, as septic tanks would be unacceptable. Anticipating a major concern of local government, it forecast little if any loss of net revenue to Worcester County, Maryland, in the expectation that increased development on the mainland would offset foregone property taxes on the island.

Most Worcester County officials and Assateague property owners were averse to the proposed Federal takeover. The county, envisioning a more residential but comparably lucrative version of Ocean City on Assateague, was unconvinced by the federally commissioned Nathan report and vigorously opposed the perceived threat to its tax base. Its planning commission, aided by the Maryland State Planning Department, commissioned a counter report by Julian Tarrant, a Richmond consultant, titled "A Plan for Private Development on Assateague Island, Maryland." In fact, the Tarrant report was less than encouraging. It found that 84 percent of the subdivided lands would require from one to seven or more feet of fill, totaling some 17 million cubic yards, to bring them up to the minimum level recommended for permanent construction. Hydraulic filling from the floor of the bay, the most economical method, would deepen the shallows there with a probable adverse effect on water life. The estimated cost of filling alone was from $6.8 to $8.5 million; utilities, dune construction, and other expenses to bring the subdivided lands to a buildable state would boost the total to between $10.5 and $19 million. As the Nathan report had observed, necessary dune construction would eliminate the platted oceanfront lots. "Private development on at least a good part of Assateague Island is altogether possible," the Tarrant plan concluded, "but it will be expensive." [17]

Assateague property owners, who might have been expected to welcome Government purchase of their lots after the daunting 1962 storm and the evident difficulties of development on the island, for the most part did not. Construction of the Sandy Point bridge, finally proceeding in 1963, rekindled the owners' dreams of island pleasures and profits. The preceding June, Interior Secretary Udall had told Maryland officials that he had no objection to their schedule for the bridge; in May 1963, however, he urged Governor Tawes to defer its construction for a year until Congress had considered the national seashore proposal. His principal concern was the certain inflation in island property values that would result. A "Governor's Committee on Assateague Island" appointed to review the matter rejected Udall's plea (construction bids had already been received), and the bridge went forward. This Federal intervention did nothing to lessen private hostility to the seashore plan, which Udall, other Federal and state officials, and congressional representatives witnessed firsthand on a June 24 trip to Assateague. There lot owners led by Philip King, president of their Ocean Beach Club association (and a retired assistant to the director of the National Park Service), verbally assaulted the delegation for threatening their property rights. "If your attitude had prevailed there would be no National Park System," the Washington Post reported Udall as shouting in response. [18]

The national seashore proponents gained an unlikely ally in Leon Ackerman. Having grossed some $4.5 million from lot sales there, he now declared Assateague unsuited for private development. (Ackerman had moved on to other real estate venture in Florida, Indian Lake Estates, which collapsed. Despondent over financial and legal difficulties, he committed suicide in April 1964.) [19]

The state of Maryland was also more inclined to favor the Federal plan for Assateague. The Maryland Board of Public Works held a public hearing at the Baltimore Civic Center in August 1963 at which a majority of those testifying supported the national seashore. The Maryland Department of Economic Development concluded that Federal recreational development of Assateague would be preferable to private development. By early September the Board of Public Works and other state officials had received 936 letters and telegrams on the issue; most were from island lot owners opposing the Federal plan, but a majority of non—owners favored it. After reviewing the Nathan and Tarrant reports and considering all views, the Board in September came out in support of joint Federal—state development, with appropriate compensation to Worcester County for its contribution to the Sandy Point bridge and its loss of island tax revenues. Economic considerations played no small role in the state's position: responsible officials contrasted the tourism income from a national seashore with the specter of major state investment to protect private property on Assateague. [20]

Some principal promoters of the national seashore visit Assateague, 1965: Interior Secretary Stewart L. Udall (center), Sen. Daniel B. Brewster (second from right), Rep. Rogers C B. Morton (right).

Senator Daniel B. Brewster of Maryland relayed to the Interior Department several questions raised at the state hearing. Would Interior consider taking the beach front only, leaving the remainder of Assateague to private development? Noting that the cost of dune stabilization would soar if it were necessary to protect landward private development, Assistant Secretary John Carver squelched this idea: "We believe that all of the stable land is required to develop the full potential as a Federal seashore." Would the Government ever want mainland property across the bay for park purposes? No, Carver replied, just a small headquarters and service area by the bridge approach. Would Interior furnish Maryland with a plan and timetable for its proposed development? Yes, a plan and tentative timetable were in progress, but development would necessarily be contingent on appropriations. Would the Federal Government compensate Maryland for a portion of the Sandy Point bridge costs? Again necessarily avoiding commitment, Carver found the proposal proper: "The fact that, except for the State park, the entire island would be in Federal ownership under the proposal, would justify a substantial Federal contribution to the cost of the bridge, in our opinion." [21]

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Last Updated: 27-Oct-2003