News

$990,000 spent lobbying for boathouse

March 26, 2009


The University has paid the Carmen Group, an independent lobbying firm, $990,000 since 2005 to lobby the National Parks Service to approve Georgetown’s proposed boathouse on the banks of the Potomac, according to lobbyist disclosure forms obtained by the Voice.

Like this, but better: Georgetown crew's current digs, the Thompson Boathouse

The University has wanted to build its own boathouse for the crew team since the 1970s, according to University Spokesperson Julie Green Bataille. Georgetown owns a tract of land on the Potomac about a mile north of the Key Bridge. However, according to Bataille, that piece of land was not ideal to build on, so the crew team has been renting space at the Thompson Boathouse, a facility they share with other collegiate and high school teams as well as private citizens. In 1987, NPS laid out a what was termed a “Boathouse Zone” on land near the Key Bridge, and, following a 1995 Environmental Assessment by NPS that found no significant potential for detrimental environmental impact in the area, the University reached a preliminary agreement with NPS in 1998 to swap the University-owned tract for one in the “Boathouse Zone.”

Although the project secured approval from the Commission of Fine Arts, the Old Georgetown Board, Georgetown’s Advisory Neighborhood Commission, and the District of Columbia Zoning Commission in the early 2000s, it is still undergoing a second, more in-depth Environmental Impact Study by NPS. The project has faced resistance, though, from conservationists and Georgetown residents who take issue with the proposed location, which is inside the C & O Canal National Historic Park.

Mia O’Connell, Executive Managing Director of the Carmen Group, said it was company policy not to comment on issues concerning their clients. However, she confirmed that the firm’s work for Georgetown University, which is listed as “Working with the National Park Service on environmental documentation and approvals” on the forms, is indeed on behalf of the Boathouse plans.

According to Green Bataille, the money paid to the Carmen Group has come from the University’s annual operating budget, not donations. The firm was paid $370,000 last year, $340,000 in 2007, $200,000 in 2006, and $80,000 in 2005.

“[T]he Carmen Group has helped on strategic aspects of the project both as a consultant and in a lobbying capacity,” Bataille wrote in an e-mail.

William Line, a spokesman for NPS, said that the Environmental Impact Statement is still under internal review. Although there is no official timeline for when the EIS must be completed, Line said it “could be three to four to five months down the road,” at which point NPS would present a “Preferred Alternative” for the boathouse project. The findings of the EIS will then be subject to at least public comment and at least one public meeting.

Sally Strain, the D.C. Coordinator of Defenders of the Potomac River Parkway, a group that opposes the Georgetown boathouse proposal, said she was shocked the University had spent so much money lobbying for the boathouse.

“Unbelievable,” Strain wrote in an e-mail. “How many scholarships or faculty positions or research projects could have been funded with that money! … How unfortunate and a waste of money.”

Bataille said that after so many years of work on the project, the University is optimistic that it will finally be able to move forward.

“After years of back and forth with the Park Service and other agencies, local and federal, it is our hope that we will be able to move forward with this project soon,” Bataille said. “Our goal is to achieve the necessary approvals to be able to build a boat house what will meet the Georgetown crew teams’ needs.”

—Additional reporting by Will Sommer



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Comments 7

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    I interviewed Sally Strain for an article I wrote in The Hoya while an undergraduate at Georgetown. This article omits the fact that: 1) The Georgetown Canoe Club has an illegally placed fence on the land of the proposed Georgetown Boathouse, and this club (which has the most to lose) along with Ms. Strain are among the most vocal opponents of the boathouse; 2) Strain has never put forth a viable alternative for Georgetown (she proposed an Anacostia location that defeats the purpose of a near-campus facility, and a laughably small shared-boathouse closer to the harbor); 3) Despite the fact that Georgetown diligently received approval from every zoning board, Georgetown residents, several DC high schools with rowing programs, and the EPA, Strain is leading a motley coalition against these people due to her narrow interests. She is a biased source who has forced Georgetown to spend this lobbying money, and an example of how the selfish will of a few individuals can prevent the will of the many. Her hypocrisy is glaring, and because of her the Thomson boathouse is overcrowded, and Georgetown may be forced to develop untouched land further North for its boathouse.

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    Mr. Joe March’s comments remind me of the old Superman comics about “Bizarro World” where everything is the opposite of what exists in our world. Here are the realities to each of his distortions: 1. The Georgetown Canoe Club has been at their location for 50 years more than the C & O Canal NHP has existed, and is there legally due to their historic prior claim, and they would remain there even if GU prevailed. 2. The so called “boathouse” that GU is attempting to build is many times the size needed for their crew program, and in fact is an attempt to place a private entertainment center in the public parkland and thus extend their campus to the river’s edge. Viable and responsible alternatives have been offered for the crew program, but that program is just an excuse for GU’s wider purpose. 3. GU did not get approval from all bodies to which they presented their proposal, and when they did get approval it was for a project a fraction of the size they are trying to now build. The “motley coalition” that opposes this is comprised of dozens of responsible civic, recreational and conservation organizations representing hundreds of thousands of people, as well as many individuals, whose interest is protecting our National Parks from private development. The threat that GU will build upstream if they don’t get this project approved is part of the disinformation that the University has tried to spread. That site is not buildable, period. Time and again the University has tried to distort the facts of this land grab, but thanks to Sally Strain and all the other VOLUNTEER CITIZENS, even a million dollars of PR hasn’t enabled them to hoodwink the public. Don’t fall for it. Our National Parks are for us and for future generations.

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    The State of Maryland’s Department of Transportation is one of the organizations that has expressed serious reservations. Maryland has expended millions of dollars on the Capital Crescent Trail, which is possibly the most used rail trail in the nation. This project would–for all practical purposes–shorten the Capital Crescent Trail. Sensible use of our waterfront parkland includes water-dependent facilities. That means one more boat house the size of existing boathouses. The delay in constructing a new boathouse is caused by those who insist on coupling it to a larger non-water dependent facility, rather than going ahead and building the boathouse they need now.

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    Regarding the nearly $1 million spent (so far) by Georgetown University to have professional lobbyists promote their boathouse application:

    The National Park Service is responsible for the approval/disapproval of any proposals affecting federal lands under their jurisdiction. When these proposals have potentially significant environmental impacts (as the NPS has belatedly acknowledged re the boathouse proposal) the NPS is required by the National Environmental Policy Act to conduct an open, objective review of the proposal, including considering feasible alternatives to the applicant’s proposal, and seeking and responding to public participation and comment.

    Nothing in the law prevents Georgetown officials from directly presenting their arguments to the NPS. Therefore it is more than curious that they felt obliged to hire paid professional lobbyists, who presumably have spent lots of time and money in private advocacy with NPS staff and various elected officials, in an attempt to circumvent or neutralize the voices of many (unpaid) citizens and community organizations who have been objecting to the size and location of GU’s boathouse proposal and who have repeatedly offered feasible alternatives for the NPS to consider.

    I’m sure that GU’s public face is one of promoting democracy, volunteer citizen involvement, and environmental values. Now we see how much they have been willing to spend to subvert those goals.

    Robert Smythe, Ph.D
    Chevy Chase, Maryland
    (Former Senior Staff Member,
    President’s Council on Environmental Quality)

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    I am just sitting here contrmplating the astonishing concept of a “motley” bunch of activists “forcing” GU to spend……..a million dollars?

    The coalition that opposes GU’s proposal is made of of numerous well-established groups that have participated to the nth degree in the long decision process for this project. It is not selfishness that motivates the coalition, but serious policy and impact issues. Who in their right mind would keep slamming into the brick walls of the Park Service and GU’s political power for kicks? My organization is clear across the country from the C&O and I’d venture to say we feel as strongly about the issue as the people who are fortunate enough to see the Park every day. It’s not our back yard, but it IS part of the commons that we all share and must protect from privatization. Every time we allow a piece of it to be bargained away, the threat to all our public lands increases.

    Janine Blaeloch
    Western Lands Project
    Seattle
    westernlands.org

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    What a crock. First the University fumbles trying to work with the NPS to get permission to build it, and then they spend a fortune trying to get it through Congress. And no wonder. It’s HUGE!!!! Get a grip and join the 21st century. Cure the Affluenza and build small – it’s the wave of the future and the time is now.

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    You are all missing the point of the boathouse.

    The proposed amenities within the boathouse include tanks, erg rooms, medical facilities, locker rooms, office space, and more storage space. All of these are needed so that GU’s crew team can be competitive within the EARC league. It will also allow members of the crew team to spend more time studying than walking down to TBC.

    TBC is 30 minutes away from campus, filled with high school programs, and does not offer any of the needed additions for the advancement of GU’s crew team.