When Maryland took over Fort Washington Marina from the National Park Service five years ago and set to work building a modern boating center there, local boaters hoped it marked an end to years of controversy at the rundown facility off the Potomac.

But now, as a $10 million refurbishing enters its final year, controversy rages as hot as ever. Charging big-boat favoritism, elitism, overpricing and even racism, opponents say the state ought to halt the renovation where it is, save $3 million and let folks enjoy what's already there.

"We want Fort Washington to be a place for small boats, which is the general registration on the Potomac River," said the Rev. Norris W. Sydnor Jr., a slipholder who led a group of pickets to Annapolis last month to protest state plans for further upgrades. "Now it's for big boats. We feel we're being forced out of boating."

"Somebody's got a country club idea in his head," said veteran Potomac bass fisherman Ken Penrod, who like Sydnor wants the state to abandon plans for a boat repair facility, restaurant and administrative center with shops on the eight-acre site.

"If the taxpayer wants simple access to a great estuary," he said, "why clog it up with monuments to bureaucrats?"

State officials respond that the buildings have always been in the site plan, which went largely unchallenged in public hearings for five years, and they don't intend to change it now. They also deny they're trying to squeeze out small boats to make room for floating palaces.

"The marina is designed for everyone -- bass fishermen, slipholders and the general boating community," said Greg Cunningham, operations director for the state Boating Administration, which oversees the project. "This marina was never meant to be a regional launch facility {for trailerable boats}. What we're striving for is balance."

Bass fishermen, said Boating Administration Director Bruce Gilmore, "want us to build a facility just for them. We can't do that." And small-boat slipholders think "all the slips should be for their size boats. That's fatuous," he said.

Nonetheless, opponents of the state plan seem to far outnumber proponents as slipholders and trailer-boat owners vigorously contest state plans to start construction on the new buildings this winter.

Sydnor, who leases a slip for his 28-footer, said monthly rates already are up from $2.50 a foot to $3.50 and headed to $5.50, the average private marina rate hereabouts, when a concessionaire takes over next year.

He said that's too high a price to pay on public property that came to the state free and has been rebuilt entirely with Waterway Improvement Funds from special taxes on boats and boat fuel, not general revenues.

Sydnor, president of the Fort Washington Boating Association, also charged the state is tilting strongly toward accommodating larger boats 30 feet and up, which he claimed is part of an effort to drive "uppity blacks and second-class whites" out of the marina. State officials vehemently denied any such motive.

Fellow slipholder John Gahagan dismissed Sydnor's suggestion of racism, saying boaters will continue to come in all colors regardless of what buildings go up there.

But Gahagan agreed the state should provide more small-boat slips at Fort Washington, and save space for trailer boaters to park. "Small-boaters represent over 70 percent of boat registrations in the state," said Gahagan, who owns an 18-foot cruiser and 14-foot fishing boat. "Why design a facility for big boats?"

Fort Washington's master plan calls for 42 of its 292 slips to be for boats under 25 feet. But the Potomac at Fort Washington, just 10 miles from the District line, "is small-boat water," plied principally by vessels under 25 feet, said Gahagan. "The way this facility is designed is more appropriate to the Chesapeake Bay," he said.

The dispute is another in a long line of troubles at Fort Washington. When the National Park Service bequeathed the site in Piscataway Creek to the state in 1986, it was a creaky, rotting eyesore at the end of a channel so silted-in, only the shallowest-draught boats could get there.

In five years since, the boat basin and channel have been dredged to 6 1/2 feet, providing access for boats up to 50 feet, and five of seven planned new docks are completed, although water and electric hookups aren't in yet.

With completion of two new launch ramps, the facility also became the premier launching facility for fishermen pursuing the Potomac's booming bass population last spring. So many bass anglers used the double ramp in April and May, on some days it was closed at 7 a.m. for lack of parking, and some boaters waited up to two hours to launch.

Bass fishermen say the state ought to take notice of that and use its limited space for parking, rather than building facilities to attract yachtsmen who aren't there now.

Today, the eight-acre marina site is largely wide open -- graded, bluestone gravel where several hundred cars and trailers could park. But if new buildings go in this winter, as planned, the site plan calls for just 152 parking spaces to remain, 124 of which would accommodate vehicles with boat trailers.

To Penrod, those numbers paint a picture of weekends in the spring when all 124 of those spaces would be full by 7 a.m., leaving 28 spots for 292 slipholders. "I can see fistfights over parking," he said.

Penrod, Sydnor, Gahagan and bass fishermen Glenn Peacock and Arnold Aspelin all maintained the state should put its land-development plans on hold, save $3 million in construction funds, keep its slip fees down, put more small-boat slips in the two piers yet to be built and maximize parking so that more people can gain access to the facility that's really attracting them -- the newly rejuvenated Potomac.

But Gilmore and his boss, Assistant Natural Resources Secretary Jim Peck, say the state is building a marina for everyone, not special-interest groups.

Gilmore said most boats at marinas sit idle and empty most of the time anyway, so conflicts over parking shouldn't arise. And, he said, planned new shoreside facilities at Fort Washington should make the facility attractive to a wide spectrum of boaters, giving the marina's private management a better chance to succeed.

Who's right? Two decades on the Potomac tell me the small-boaters have a strong point. They're the ones who use the river most, and the state ought to do all it can to make access to this revived resource easy and inexpensive for them.

If slips for 40- and 50-footers, shops and a restaurant go in, there's no doubt Fort Washington will draw the sort of high rollers that improve a marina's balance sheet. But is that the state's higher purpose?

Anyone who knows boating knows 40- and 50-footers on the Potomac serve most of their time at the dock as floating cocktail barges and status symbols. Moreover, there already are places aplenty on the river for these boats to tie up, but few indeed for small boaters who get out weekends to fish, water ski or explore the creeks and backwaters.

"The reason we have state parks and marinas is to make these things available to the general public," said Sydnor. Agreed.

The need for a good small-boat facility on the Potomac should be obvious, and you couldn't find a better place to put one than Fort Washington, in the heart of the best fishing and small-boat cruising grounds.

Why can't the state bend a bit and respond to that need?