Several North Beach Town Council members and residents are raising concerns about the annual Blessing of the Bikes event, saying the presence of a Hells Angels biker group could spark problems with other local motorcyclists.
During their meeting Thursday night, no council members proposed canceling the event scheduled for May 4, but some said allowing the Blessing of the Bikes to go on would be ill-advised.
Council member Barbara Gray said last year's Blessing of the Bikes was filled with tension. Dozens of police, some sitting on roofs with sniper rifles, patrolled the event, which drew thousands of motorcycle enthusiasts to the Chesapeake Bay waterfront and North Beach's main business district.
"It gave the impression that a riot was coming," Gray said.
The heavy security was warranted, authorities said, by the potential for conflict involving a newly formed Calvert County chapter of the national biker club, the Hells Angels. Authorities said the Hells Angels rivalry with another Maryland motorcycle group, the Pagans, has prompted violence in the past.
Police found a cache of pipes and clubs at last year's event. A month later, a Hells Angel was shot and seriously wounded at a bar in Deale by a former member of the Pagans who eventually entered a plea to reckless endangerment.
Calvert County Sheriff Mike Evans (R) told council members that they should expect a similar type of police presence if they decide to allow the Blessing of the Bikes event. He said he has a designated a new intelligence officer, whose duties include keeping tabs on local motorcycle gangs.
"Any time you have the potential for violence, that's a concern for law enforcement," Evans said. "To tell you that I'm not concerned, I can't do that. I am concerned."
Hundreds of other bike blessings are held around the country near the beginning of the summer riding season. Two are held separately every year in St. Mary's County. Typically, the events include entertainment, food and, at the end, a pastor's blessing on each motorcycle to keep its driver safe.
Mayor Mark R. Frazer, a motorcycle enthusiast himself, defended the blessing, saying some who oppose it "just don't like bikers." He said 95 percent of those who go to the blessing are not gang members.
"I'm not persuaded that the event should be canceled because of what might happen," said Frazer, though he added: "If I am made aware that there is a particular or specific threat . . . I will not jeopardize the interests of the town in any way."
Evans said he knew of no specific threats of violence coming from the bikers.
Residents seem divided on the issue. A North Beach and Chesapeake Beach business association voted recently in favor of the event.
A member of a local motorcycle club, the Tribes, who goes by the name "Buddha," said some bikers want to see the event continue, though his own opinion is: "If they don't have it, I won't be upset." The Tribes raises money for children at the event by selling beer.
Some in North Beach complain about the noise from the bikes and the image the event gives the town. Residents such as Jean Rupard, 73, said the event has gotten out of hand.
"It only takes two thugs to start a lot of trouble," she said.