A lawsuit filed Oct. 7 by the Washington Canoe Club and the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal Association aims to forestall the construction of Georgetown’s proposed boathouse.

The suit, filed against the National Park Service, claims that the NPS failed to comply with the federal Environmental Protection Act by not conducting a thorough environmental impact study when the agency approved a land exchange with Georgetown in 1998.

The NPS agreement with Georgetown involved the exchange of a smaller plot of land upstream from the current property.

The lawsuit contends that the 1998 environmental impact study did not take into consideration the proposed size of the boathouse.

The lawsuit also alleges that the NPS violated an agreement executed under the National Historic Preservation Act that prohibits the Park Service from approving a boathouse design with a footprint in excess of 15,000 square feet and a height of 40 feet. Georgetown’s current plans call for a 35,000 square foot structure with an 18,682 square foot footprint, a fourfold increase in size since the original plans were released in 1987.

In light of the suit, NPS officials have recently decided to proceed with a new environmental impact study.

The Washington Canoe Club’s boathouse is located immediately upstream of the proposed Georgetown boathouse. The C&O Canal Association fears the new building will obscure views of the Potomac River from the canal.

The Potomac River Conservancy, the Sierra Club and the National Parks Conservation Association have also expressed opposition to the project.

Larry Schuette, president of the Washington Canoe Club, said that the suit was “reluctantly” filed to “force the issue” that the university and the NPS were ignoring environmental regulations.

“The opportunity to pursue legal measures expired in early October, hence the timing was to ensure that the proper environmental processes were followed,” he said. “Without a court action there was no guarantee that [a new] Environmental Impact Survey or even an Environmental Assessment would occur.”

Georgetown officials expressed confidence that the project would move forward and said they were willing to conduct an environmental assessment of the new construction project.

“Georgetown has expressed its willingness to proceed with an Environmental Assessment on the boathouse project, and feels that providing this additional level of project review will further answer and resolve a number of issues that continue to be raised by those who are in opposition to the project,” University spokeswoman Laura Cavender said. “Georgetown looks forward to continuing to work with both the National Park Service and other relevant groups regarding its plans and design for a new boathouse on the Potomac River.”

Bob Morris of the District of Columbia chapter of the Sierra Club said that the construction of the boathouse will have serious consequences upon the natural riverbank habitat along the Potomac.

Since the area is a low-lying wetland, the existing bushes and trees serve as a system of natural flood control and prevent soil erosion, Morris said. If they are removed for the construction, he speculated that flooding could become a serious problem further down the river.

Morris claimed the new boathouse would be an eyesore along the Potomac and accused university officials of constructing the building for publicity purposes.

“The only reason the university wants this huge boathouse is so they can hide the fact that they are an urban university,” he said. “The site was carefully chosen so that they could take pictures of it from across the river and sell the school to suburban kids and their parents living in the idwest.”

Fred Mopsick, environmental committee chair of the C&O Canal Association, said he was concerned about the visual impact the boathouse would have for those walking along the canal’s towpath. He said he was particularly worried about the plans for the boathouse’s tower.

“When a tower is 23 feet above the towpath, it has a significant effect,” Mopsick said.

The environmental impact report completed in 1998 predicts that the construction of a boathouse on the current site would be less damaging than construction on the site Georgetown exchanged with NPS.

While the current site is mostly covered with non-native vegetation, the older, up-river site has native flora and fauna.

Men’s Heavyweight crew coach Tony Johnson said that the new report would take about four to six months to complete.

“That will delay the project,” he said. “But we realized it had to be done.”

Neither the Washington Canoe Club nor the C&O Canal Association have supported the Sierra Club’s calls to completely halt the proposed construction. The two organizations have focused primarily on the size of the new boathouse in their objections.

“We have really nothing against the boathouse, but we want to make sure the rules are followed,” Mopsick said. “This could have moved along more quickly if it had been done right.”

Schuette also expressed concern about the boathouse’s size, and called for the abandonment of plans for a permanent pier.

“If the boathouse is made smaller our concerns about the program will be greatly reduced,” he said. “The pier pushes the docks out an extra distance which interferes with river use.”

The problem could be resolved by introducing a system of parallel docks similar to those George Washington University is planning to build for its own boathouse further downstream, Schuette said.

“That would be a win for everyone who uses the river and for Georgetown, who wouldn’t have to rely on a pier to remove their boats from the club in the winter when the ramps and docks are removed,” he said.

Schuette also said the current home of the Washington Canoe Club could be endangered if the canal embankment that will be necessary for construction fails.

Georgetown officials point out that in vacating the spot they currently occupy at the Thompson Boathouse, the university would allow other groups access to the Potomac River. The new site will allow construction on land adjacent to already established development instead of on a parcel surrounded by the Potomac Palisades Preserve, they said.

Students said they understood officials’ desire for a large university-owned boathouse.

Rower Natalie Ciomek (COL ’07) said the 20- to 30-minute walk from campus to the current Thompson Boathouse can be painful, especially during winter training. She expressed disappointment at the slow pace of the construction.

“We don’t even mention the new boathouse,” she said. “We all just feel like we won’t see it by the time we graduate.”

Despite these doubts and obstacles such as the current lawsuit, however, Johnson said that the university will proceed with planning and fundraising activities for the proposed boathouse.

“At the present time it is not impacting our schedule,” he said.

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