By ELLEN STODOLA
ANNAPOLIS (March 3, 2012)—The Maryland Department of Natural Resources wants to require large gatherings of boats to obtain permits because of the strain on police caused by events like Bumper Bash, Canal Day and AquaPalooza.
The department said officers are especially important at these events because of the number of boats present and the dangerous situations that individuals often put themselves into because they've been drinking.
A new bill in the Maryland General Assembly would make it mandatory for these marine gatherings - essentially parties on the water - to obtain a permit.
SB 127 was introduced with support from the Department of Natural Resources.
The new law would be aimed at intentional gatherings of 50 boats or more, and the language specifically caters to events that create "extra or unusual hazards to life or property."
"This is becoming quite a burden on our workforce," said Col. George Johnson of the Natural Resources Police. Johnson said officers at these events constantly have to act to save the lives of people who put themselves into dangerous situations.
The legislation won't affect things like races, regattas, parades, exhibitions or anything that already requires a permit from the Coast Guard. In addition, proposed amendments to the bill also suggest that fishing competitions be explicitly exempted.
However, several big events in Maryland, including Canal Day in Chesapeake City and Bumper Bash at Dobbins Island, would require permits should this new law be enacted.
Johnson said there are 28 states that already have permitting like this in place.
"Hundreds of boats come together and create a very dangerous and hazardous situation," Johnson said.
During last year's Canal Day weekend, officers had to respond to situations on both the Friday and Saturday nights of the event.
Overall, there were two operating under the influence violations, eight citations, seven warnings and one boat accident which was alcohol related, according to the Natural Resources Police.
Similarly, last year's Bumper Bash saw four operating under the influence citations in addition to citations for underage drinking, disorderly conduct and boating warnings and citations.
"The drain on our resources is astronomical," said Lt. Charles Vernon of the Natural Resources Police.
Specifics of the proposed bill are still being ironed out, and legislators have many questions regarding the price of these permits and exactly how those involved with an event would have to apply for one.
The fee for a permit is estimated at around $100, but some legislators are worried that is not enough of a motivator to deter people from engaging in disruptive and hazardous behavior.
It's unclear how approval for these permits will be mandated and how police would determine if they need to disband an event.
Sen. Bryan Simonaire, R-Anne Arundel, said the authority the Natural Resources Police would have to actually disband an event was unclear in the language of the bill.
Some of the provisions of the bill need more clarity or official organizers may cease to be official organizers because they won't want to be responsible for large crowds of people, said Sen. Paul Pinsky, D-Prince George's.
Frank Hill, the mayor of Chesapeake City, sees the need for permits and believes they could have a positive impact, especially on his city for the Canal Day event.
He said over the years, the boating contingent has become larger than the event itself.
"The water event reputation took over the reputation of Canal Day," Hill said.
Ron Francis, president of the Chesapeake City District Civic Association, said that regulations on marine gatherings are supported by the civic association, which helps organize and sponsor Canal Day.
Francis said boating has become quite a problem, and the law could help limit the number of boats allowed at the event.
"The crux to this whole problem is alcohol," said Sen. Edward Reilly, R-Anne Arundel.
He said a lot of problems at these events arise from people not acting within general laws.
"You can't legislate common sense," Reilly said. "You can't legislate good judgment."