On a clear day, if Tom Wilson peers down Piscataway Creek and across the Potomac River, he can see the lush front lawn of George Washington's home at Mount Vernon.
"That," Wilson reasons, "means that from Mount Vernon, they can see me."
And that, he says, "is the root of this whole crazy situation."
In 1974, by act of Congress, the National Park Service assumed ownership of the 300-slip Fort Washington Marina, which has operated in the southwestern corner of Prince George's County since 1959.
The park service stepped in under the provisions of a 1961 federal law, which declared that the Maryland shoreline visible from Mount Vernon -- the marina included -- must be kept "as it existed at the time of . . . active use of Mount Vernon (in the 18th century)."
When it took over in 1974, the park service paid $750,000 to the marina's owner of record, Joe Goldstein. But ever since, the park service has been embroiled in a legal struggle with Wilson, who had been leasing the marina for two years at the time of the federal takeover. Wilson claims he was in the process of exercising an option to buy the 8-acre facility from Goldstein and was thus the rightful owner.
Wilson is suing the government for $4 million -- $1.5 million for the marina itself and the rest for damages and lost business. The case is before the U.S. Court of Claims, and may take two or three years to settle, according to Stephen Leventhal, Wilson's attorney.
Meanwhile, however, Wilson has continued to run the marina -- even though he has no clear legal right to do so, even though he is not officially a park service concessionaire and even though the park service could apparently throw him out at any time.
According to Justice Department staff attorney Carolyn Osolinik, the official position of the park service is that Wilson is a "tenant at suffrance." Translation: "That tolerate his presence," said Leventhal.
A park service spokesman said Wilson has not been evicted because it is "in the interests of the boating community that there be a functioning marina" while Wilson's suit is litigated.
Wilson freely admits that at various times over the year, he has not had an occupancy permit, a liquor license for his restaurant, a functioning sewer system for the marina's headquarters or building permits for repairs -- "among other problem, many others."
But Wilson ascribes those difficulties to the muddled Fort Washington ownership situation. "I'm not sure I would have given me some of those permits, either," he says.
Meanwhile, Wilson has presided over a business that has declined considerably and steadily since 1974.
He says his staff has declined from 77 at that time to "today, which is me, a girl to answer the phone and two yard boys." Meanwhile, the restaurant and marine store are open only fitfully, and the repair shop closed earlier this year.
"I don't have a dime. I'm hanging on by my teeth," said Wilson, a chunky, excitable, a 42-year-old former engineer for the federal government. Still, he insists he plans to stay in business at Fort Washington "until the cows come home.
"All I want is the same treatment the (park service) would give to any other concessionaire. But they treat me like a squatter. At this point, I'm so wrung out and strung out and emotionally exhusted that I have no desire to work with them.
It's a weird situation, isn't it?"
That weird quality is not what concerns the 280 homeowners in Fort Washington Estates, a secluded neighborhood of $100,000-plus homes, many of which overlook the marina.
Many residents bought homes in the area precisely because it is so near the marina. "Four hundred years from my door to the water sounded damn good to me," says Noel Wood, a Navy captain and Fort Washington slipholder who lives on Reid Circle.
But Wood and many of his neighbors are worried about the marina's advanced -- and advancing -- state of disrepair.
In recent months, the five exposed piers have begun to rot, and the grounds are often littered with rusting hulls and discarded boatparts.
"Tom's not exactly a great housekeeper," says Joe Boyer, who lives on Calvert Lane and has sailed in and around the marina for 15 years.
Other residents are concerned about safety. A swimming pool to which much of the neighborhood belongs sits in a field only 100 feet from the marina and its eyesores.
"I'm afraid to let my children go down there because they might hurt themselves on the way," said Barbara Kirkconnell, of 913 Queens Terrace.
But the chief concern in the neighborhood is over the park service's intentions, assuming it ever reaches a settlement with Wilson. Since early 1979, four plans have been under consideration.
Under one, the existing piers would be knocked down and replaced with two launching ramps. The rest of the arina would become a bird sanctuary. The major result would be to convert Fort Washington into a facility for day-sailors and relatively small boats. The estimated cost of this plan is $1.146 million.
Under a second plan, the existing marian would be given a few coats of paint and other minimal maintenance, but would otherwise run much the way it does today, and would serve the same types of boats, mostly sailboats of 25 feet or less. Cost: $63,000.
Under a third plan, which would cost $7,826 million, the entire marina would be rebuilt and modernized so it could serve bigger boats, including fullsize motorboats, and the one-mile-long channel to the Potomac would be dredged.
The fourth plan is very similar to the third, but it would leave more marshland along the marina's eastern edge. Plan Four would cost $7.789 million.
Because Piscataway Creek has not been dredged since 1969, dredging would account for at least $3.3 million of the cost of each of the last two plans. In addition, there is the difficult problem of where to dump 232,000 cubic yards of "spoil" -- the pudding-like muck that has gathered slowly over the years and has reduced water depth in Piscataway Creek to five feet at high tide, and nearly zero at low.
According to Jane Ring, director of concessions for the National Capital Region of the park service, no dumping site for the spoil has been found, and no good candidate is on the horizon.
"We keep talking about 18 months to finish plans three or four, but that means nothing if we don't find a site," Ring said.
Also unclear is how the spoil would leave the Fort Washington area.
The park service is considering barging it down the Potomac or trucking it out. If the spoil is trucked, and removed as quickly as possible, vehicles would arrive and depart all day and all night, every day, for eight months, Ring said. Because the only way into or out of the marina is via Warburton Drive, a two-lane residential street, "that, to put it mildly, is unacceptable," said Dave Conley, who is president of the community's swimming pool association.
If the park service chooses any of the plans that retain a full-service marina at the Fort Washington site, Government Services Inc., a concessionaire at other federal installations in the Washington area, would have "first right of refusal," Ring said. If GSI declines, "any interested party can apply, including Mr. Wilson."
Another contender is the state of Maryland.
Earl Waesche, the Prince George's delegate to the Maryland Coastal Resources Advisory Committee, said the Maryland Department of Natural Resources offered to step in and run a fullscale marina at Fort Washington "by February 1980, with state money." But because of the uncertainty about dredging, and about the Wilson litigation, the offer "was put on hold," Waesche said.
To Dave Conley, the way out of the marina dilemma is simple. "Just come in with 50 guys and a dump truck and make it look like a first-class facility," he said.
To Donald Clark, president of the Fort Washington Estates Citizens Association, "the whole situation is a puzzle, because the problem is cosmetic, and you can correct a lot of the way the marina looks without a great deal of expense. I'm surprised the Park Service hasn't done it by now."
To Stephen Leventhal, the marina problem is one of legal tactics. "I think the Park Service has felt all along that they could outwait Tom Wilson," Leventhal said.
And to Wilson? "It's a damn shame, that's all," he said, "because this is the only marina on this side of the river at this end of the river, and it's necessary.
"I'd be glad to run this marina," said Wilson, as he stood beside a sign that reads: "Fort Washington Marina: Where Your Fun Begins."
"But I'm not glad to run it with two hands tied behind my back. That way, the boaters don't win, I don't win and the neighborhood doesn't win."