City needs to preserve riverbank for future generations

As the 4th Ward Councilman for nearly 19 years, one of my goals has been to keep as much of our riverbank accessible to the public as possible. In 2001, I had dinner with some folks from Cleveland who were in town with the Great Ohio Bicycle Adventure (GOBA). You probably remember those 3,000 bike riders and how they spent two nights in our city. Well those Clevelanders told me what they liked most about Marietta was that, unlike most of Lake Erie, people could actually get close and walk alongside our rivers. You can’t do that in Cleveland unless you own your own piece of the Lake Erie shoreline.

Over the years, Council has fought off a couple of people who wanted Council’s permission to build private docks on the Harmar side of the river because they intended to use those docks for their own personal enjoyment. When I asked one of the individuals if a city resident could fish on their docks, the answer was and emphatic “NO.” I got support from my fellow Councilors and those petitioners never got permission to build their docks.

This spring I observed activity occurring on a dock that was moored just north of the Washington Street Bridge along Gilman Avenue. In addition, last month, I watched someone else along Gilman, just up river from that existing dock, build, put a new dock in the river and attach it to city property. Over the years I have raised concerns about the dock near the bridge but could not generate administrative support to do anything about it. Now, with another dock being attached to city property and the original dock expanding, I was able to get the attention of the administration and my fellow Council members.

What caught my attention this year was a second boat tied to the existing dock and two trucks parked almost daily on the grass. I called this to the attention of the safety-service director. When asked, I did not know who owned the boats and dock, but the safety-service director said he would take care of the issue. At a recent Council meeting, the owners attended and I spoke with them about their dock. As you may have read, I have referred to the people who have built these docks as squatters. For those who don’t know, a squatter is a “settler with no legal title to the land occupied, typically one on land not yet allocated by a government.” The owner of the first dock took offense to this label and said his grandfather, who was a city employee, was granted permission by the city to place the dock at this site 50 years ago. I asked a very fair question: Can you provide documentation? If they could do that, I told them, I would support their claim. To date I have not seen any proof. The second dock owner told me that he was paying rent to the owner of the property on the west side of the river directly across from where he put his dock into the river. He told me that he was building his dock there because he could not afford to put it anywhere else and the land owner said he had documentation of ownership and would rent it cheaply. I went to the courthouse that afternoon, searched the records in the county recorder’s office and did not find any reference to ownership of the land between Gilman Avenue and the river. In fact, records show that all of the ground from the Washington Street Bridge to Westview Avenue very clearly belongs to the city.

With no proof, there is no ownership or valid claim for a dock to be attached to the city’s property. I really don’t understand why anyone believes that these two docks should be allowed to be tethered to the city’s property, for free. I also really don’t understand why these people deserve some special accommodation because they’ve been there for so long under the radar. As a former teacher, I know the problems that “special treatment” create. It’s all or none. And my vote will be for “none” and this is why: at a Council meeting I stated that I would like to see that piece of ground become a park. In fact, I suggested that park be named in honor of Marilyn Ortt. For years Marilyn and I tried to get the city to maintain that area but to no avail. Whether Council and the administration agrees with my suggestion to name this park Ortt Park or not, this ground, which I believe, will become increasing more valuable to the city’s future economic development, should never leave the public domain, it should not be rented, and should become a dedicated park. I believe this because this stretch is all high bank and letting private individuals build docks there will not be good for the intrinsic beauty of the riverbank. It will also create administrative headaches the city just doesn’t need. Our rivers and public access to them is part of our brand which business uses to sell our community to tourists. Marilyn Ortt knew this and worked with me to try and get this piece of ground the attention it needed to be considered a vital part of our city park system.

As to maintenance of the area, it’s always been an issue of money and having the personnel to maintain the riverbank. The argument by the two illegal dock owners is that they maintain the grassy area leading to their docks. They also park on those grassy areas and have laid claim to a pretty nice shelf above the river, which most people don’t know exists, that would be a great area to observe boat races or just sit and watch the river. My thought was to keep this area free from private development so that when the city has the resources to turn this stretch of public property into usable park land, Council and the administration will not have to fight a battle with who knows how many small dock owners to regain access to public property. I will vote “NO” on bidding out this city property and encourage my fellow councilors to join me in preserving the riverbank for future generations.

Tom Vukovic is Marietta’s 4th Ward City Councilman.

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