Neighbors of the Fort Washington Marina are challenging a $7 million state proposal to lease and rebuild the Potomac River facility, saying the plan would lower the level of service offered at the 25-year-old marina, which is owned by the National Park Service.

The marina, located in the southwestern corner of Prince George's County, is operated by Piscataway Co. Inc. for the park service.

The state department of natural resources wants to acquire and upgrade the marina because of "severe lack of boating facilities on the Maryland side of the river," according to that department's waterways improvement division.

The state's plan calls for razing the marina's four buildings and constructing a restaurant, boat storage building and marine repair facility. The state also would replace the retaining walls and piers at the 300-slip marina.

"We want to establish a first-class marina at Fort Washington," said Robert Ellsworth, a state waterway planner.

At a recent public hearing held by the state and the National Park Service, boaters and neighbors of the marina voiced disapproval of the state's plan to eliminate a public launch ramp. Under the state's proposal, use of the launch ramp would be restricted to those who lease a slip at the marina or keep their boats in a new dry storage facility, which would hold 140 vessels.

"There are hundreds of homes within a 10- to 15-mile distance of the marina with boats on trailers parked in the driveway. What the state is doing is denying use of a ramp that the public has been using for the past 25 years under the guise of improving the marina," said William Cable, a boater who lives near the marina.

During a six-month period, more than 1,500 launches are made from the ramp, National Park Service officials said. The nearest public launch ramp on the Maryland side of the river is about 15 to 20 miles away, at Smallwood State Park in Charles County.

Boaters also said they are concerned about the state's plan to shut down the marina for one year during construction, saying there would be no other place in that stretch of the river to assist boaters in need of emergency repair or fuel. The marina now has a repair shop and will haul disabled boats out of the water 24 hours a day.

"The fuel pumps are a service we can't do without for even a day. One time, when the pumps broke down for a week, we had people coming in who were desperate for fuel," said Juliette Coyle, a partner in the Piscataway Co. The closest full-service marina on the Maryland side of the river is Aqualand Marina, about 45 miles to the south, Coyle said.

Under the state proposal, the marina repair facility would offer "light" or emergency repairs. Boaters also objected to this plan, saying a full service repair shop, like the one at the marina, is essential.

"We have a slogan in our business. If it works, don't fix it, " said Ken Penrod of the Maryland Bass Association, one of the opponents to the project at the hearing.

The park service bought the marina in 1974 from a private owner after Congress mandated that the shoreline visible from Mount Vernon be preserved "as it existed at the time of the construction and active use of the Mount Vernon mansion and Fort Washington."

But there were still questions about ownership of the facility. During the next decade, while the matter was battled in and out of court, the marina deteriorated, officials said. A lawsuit was finally settled in favor of the park service in 1982 and bids were sought for a concessionaire to operate the marina.

Ellsworth said state officials expressed an interest in leasing and upgrading the marina in 1980, with the intention of dredging the shallow bay there. But the state's plan stalled when officials had difficulty finding an environmentally safe site to dump the dredged material, which is required by state law before dredging can take place.

Since the state was slow in developing its proposal, Coyle and Andrew Sabin, a fiber glass repairman at the marina, formed the Piscataway Co. and bid on a contract to operate the marina. The park service granted the company an annually renewable lease in 1983.

The Piscataway Co. has spent $15,000 of its own money and $45,000 in Park Service funds over the past two years to upgrade the marina's restaurant. With the help of community groups, the company has also cleaned up the marina's eight-acre site and plans to repair the docks and seawall at the marina, dredge the marina, obtain a new travel lift for boats and bury overhead electric lines, company officials said.

Ellsworth said a dump site was identified about three months ago and the state has now revived its interest in leasing the marina. Piscataway's lease ends in January, although the company has been granted a nine-month extension, whether or not the state is granted a lease.