Wicomico unveils its plans for Pirate’s Wharf Park

Monday evening at the Wicomico Youth & Civic Center, Wicomico County unveiled the master plan for Pirate’s Wharf Park on 340 acres along Whitehaven Road near the village of Quantico. The plan was years in the making, the culmination of a county executive’s vision that was enhanced by the interests and concerns of residents and those who already love the area.

County Parks Director Steve Miller, and Michael Wigley and Ken Eaton of the architectural firm Davis, Bowen & Friedel, presented the proposed park and discussed some of the details as well as a rough timeline for the project.

Miller recounted how the county purchased the property in 1997 but had taken no further action until recently.

“The goal was always to provide public access and improve the quality of life for residents,” Miller said, pointing out the purchase had been made using funds from Maryland Project Open Space.

The plan evolved from County Executive Bob Culver’s initial vision as described in his 2015 State of the County address as a campground and country club-like riverfront park to a low-impact natural site highlighting the area’s existing natural beauty and history.

“To call this place beautiful is an understatement,” said Wigley.

Wigley explained how the first phase of the plan focuses on the smaller portion of the parcel that lies on the southeastern side of Whitehaven Road, which is also the waterfront side.

The 225-acre northwestern portion of the property is and will remain mostly forested, as it is a state-designated critical area wetlands and will, according to Wigley and Eaton, remain untouched. A system of trails continues to be used recreationally by mountain bikers, hikers and walkers. Phase 1 will add trailhead parking across Whitehaven Road adjacent to the trails, further minimizing disruption of the forest.

The plan calls for a system of trails across the Phase 1 property to connect wetlands, pond, shoreline and event areas situated near the entrance road, all of which are designed to create sightlines and highlight the natural beauty of the property, Wigley said.

The riverbank will remain a living shoreline that preserves existing shoreline, he said, with minimal fortifications near a proposed boat ramp at the southern end of the project. A separate “soft launch” area will be developed nearby for canoes, kayaks and other small vessels.

All shoreline and boat launch features are driven by the need to keep recreational boats and fishing activities separated from barges and other commercial river traffic.

A historic survey conducted in March by Mike Hitch revealed the approximate locations of some of the property’s earliest structures. “Ghost houses,” which represent the approximate footprint of structures that no longer exist, will be located at sites where the survey indicates those homes once existed.

Near the entrance road, a 1,500-square-foot event pavilion, archway with comfort stations, space for informational brochures and ample parking with overflow areas will transform the broad lawn area into a welcoming venue for events large and small. Efforts to keep impervious surfaces to a minimum mean the main parking area will be gravel rather than asphalt, and overflow parking will be on grass. A tot lot is planned within sight of the pavilion.

Elsewhere, woodlands and meadows will be populated using native species that can thrive, once established, with little care — and offer insight into how the area may have appeared centuries ago.

Phase 2 is tentatively planned to expand the shoreline trail, create additional observation deck areas and parking capacity, double the pavilion area to 3,000 square feet and add several smaller pavilions to accommodate smaller parties or outings.

Joan Maloof, who lived at the site for more than 20 years, inquired about plans for the 225-acre forest and wondered whether investment in trail infrastructure improvement had been considered.

Eaton said planners felt the available resources were better spent on the core park, although the discussion was ongoing.

Maloof also asked about the possibility of a conservation easement to protect the forested area on a permanent basis. Wicomico resident Niamh Shortt echoed Maloof’s desire for an easement and shared some comments about wildlife on the site, including an “otter village” along the bank near the proposed boat launch.

Miller said he understood formal protections would make people feel better, but assured the audience the forested area on the other side of Whitehaven Road would not be touched.

“Adding infrastructure is costly,” Miller said, “and we want to use our resources to expand public access.” Miller also said federal grants the county had accepted came with built-in protections — in addition to the County Executive’s commitment to preserving the wooded area.

Maloof reiterated her conviction that the easement is necessary to avoid future clear-cutting of trees regardless of current officials’ promises.

Weston Young, Wicomico’s Assistant Director of Administration, called the forest a “wetlands mitigation bank”  that would not only protect the forest without an easement, but would save the county substantial money by designating it to offset minor wetland encroachments related to future infrastructure needs.

Melba Kenney, a retired teacher and Nanticoke Road resident, said after the meeting she had attended because she was concerned about the amount of asphalt that the park development might create. She is relieved this park will not become another athletic complex.

“I would like to see it remain natural, with trails and direct connections to nearby areas like Whitehaven where children and adults can be educated about the environment and the area’s history,” she said. “I was afraid it would become more athletic fields and asphalt. We don’t need more of that.”

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