New boathouse stalled by Park Service delays

April 7, 2011

Georgetown University’s efforts to construct a boathouse on the Potomac River, which have attracted millions of dollars in alumni donations and cost more than $1 million in lobbying fees, have come to a halt as the National Parks Service continues to delay a report critical to its progress.

Georgetown is awaiting the completion of an Environmental Impact Statement by the NPS before it can move ahead. But neither the University nor the NPS can project when the EIS will be released, while other local issues have complicated the report’s completion indefinitely.

“Like anything in the government, unfortunately, it takes 30 years,” said Mike Vespoli (COL ‘68) a men’s crew team alum and former Olympic rower who has helped lead the project’s fundraising efforts.

Scott Fleming, Georgetown’s associate vice president for federal relations, points to a 2007 Department of the Interior Office of the Inspector General report as a reason for the delays. The report cites the Washington Canoe Club for abusing its NPS special-use permit. Although it is built on public land, the OIG said, the WCC functions as a private site that improperly blocks public access to the land it occupies—land adjacent to the University-owned site of the proposed Georgetown boathouse. Fleming said the NPS could not complete the EIS without resolving this issue.

According to Bill Line, a spokesperson for the NPS, the NPS is still working to resolve the issues raised by the OIG report, although he did not specify how the resolution could affect the proposed boathouse.

In June 2010, the Georgetown Current also reported that NPS discovered information that expanded the scope of its EIS. Rachel Pugh, the director of media relations for Georgetown, wrote in an email that “one or more completion dates or deadlines for the EIS and related studies have now come and gone.”

In his email, Line would not speak specifically to the delays.

“The National Park Service has the first duty and responsibility to ensure the EIS is done in a way that ‘gets it right,’” he wrote.

The University currently rents space for its four male and female rowing teams at the Thompson Boathouse. Georgetown has sought to build its own facility for the past 40 years, and in that time, secured approval from the Advisory Neighborhood Commission, the Old Georgetown Board, the Commission of Fine Arts, and the Zoning Commission to erect a boathouse on a tract of land approximately one mile north of the Key Bridge. In 1995, an NPS Environmental Assessment concluded that there was no potential for detrimental impact to the environment on that land before deciding to undertake a more thorough study of the area through an EIS.

As of the end of 2010, alumni donors have contributed $9.15 million toward the construction project and have made $9.67 million in commitments, according to Pugh. These contributions have also gone toward the cost of lobbying and consulting efforts by the D.C.-based Carmen Group, which have been ongoing since 2005 and passed the $1 million-mark in the first financial quarter of 2009.

But in another sign that efforts have stalled, payments to Carmen Group have dwindled since earlier in the decade, when the firm received up to $130,000 in lobbying fees in a single quarter. Then, the issue of the boathouse was seeing progress with NPS. In a Mar. 2009 Voice article, Line said that the completion of the Environmental Impact Statement could be three to five months away. University spokesperson Julie Green Bataille expressed similar optimism at the time.

According to lobbying disclosure forms obtained by the Voice, starting in the Jul. 2009 and for every financial quarter since then, Georgetown has paid the Carmen Group less than $5,000. During that period, the Carmen Group reported having “[n]o direct contact with National Park Service, but ongoing consultation with Georgetown with regard to environmental documentation,” where it had previously worked with the NPS to produce environmental documents and move toward approval.

When finally completed, the EIS will be circulated for public comment and at least one community meeting. A group called the Defenders of Potomac River Parkland, of which the Washington Canoe Club is one of more than two dozen members, is already urging people to prepare their opposition to the University’s plans, which they say will block hiking trails and the view of the Potomac River.

Vespoli is not convinced that the EIS will be the final step before construction can begin, however.

“I’m sure if we got the approval to go ahead, somebody else will file a court case, and that will take another few years,” he said. “Will I be alive when it finally happens? I sure hope so.”

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