Audit Finds Exclusive Clubs 'Monopolize' Public Parkland

The Washington Canoe Club near Georgetown is on public land but is not open to the public.
The Washington Canoe Club near Georgetown is on public land but is not open to the public. "We don't want to become a rental-of-aluminum-canoes place," the club president said. (By Kevin Clark -- The Washington Post)
By Elizabeth Williamson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 29, 2007

The National Park Service has for decades allowed members-only beach, yacht and sports clubs -- including New York City's largest beach resort -- to "monopolize" public lands that by law should be open to all, an Interior Department audit shows.

The audit also found that the Park Service did not consider "environmental consequences" for 18 of 20 sites included in the survey.

The clubs "have enjoyed exclusive rights to public lands through restrictive and costly memberships that deny the general public the same benefits," the report says. "In some instances, the National Park Service has authorized this exclusivity for 30 or more years."

The Washington Canoe Club near Georgetown, White's Ferry Sportsman's Club in Maryland and the Breezy Point Surf Club in Queens are among the private clubs occupying waterfront land, the survey by the Interior Department inspector general's office found. Park Service officials acknowledge the problems but say they have no idea how many private clubs occupy public land under "special use" permits. A sampling of parklands for the audit turned up five private clubs occupying scores of acres on the East Coast, three clubs in New York and two in the Washington area.

An Interior Department inspector general's audit in 1984 raised the same questions as the latest audit, but the Park Service did little to address them, despite officials saying that they would take action.

National Park Service Director Mary A. Bomar "has committed us to find out the extent to which these special use permits limit public access, and not to renew any special permits until she can make a determination on whether they limit public access to these areas," said Park Service spokesman David Barna.

"It's going to take us some time," he said. "We have 391 parks on 84 million acres, and we're going to look at every one."

Sen. Charles E. Grassley (Iowa), ranking Republican member of the Finance Committee and a longtime agency oversight advocate, also plans to examine the issue.

"The Interior Department appears to be taking the public out of public lands," he said. "Taxpayers shouldn't be subsidizing swimming pools, beachfront property and canoe clubs on taxpayer-owned land for the exclusive few who can afford to pay the membership fee."

All of the clubs in the audit occupied their locations at the time that the land they are on was turned over to the Park Service. Barna said that when the agency acquires land, it deals with occupants in a variety of ways but that parkland must be open to all.

"It's going to be a case-by-case basis. This is not going to be easy, which is why nothing was done in 1984," he said.

A reassessment could bring changes for the Washington Canoe Club, whose special permit expires this year.

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