‘Sleeping giant’ roils familiar waters

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To the Coast Guard, the issue of the navigational aids on Virginia’s SmithMountainLake is simple: The lake, which sits upriver of two dams on the Roanoke River, is legally navigable water. The Coast Guard oversees all navigable water in the nation. The navigational aids must, by law, conform to Coast Guard Standards — and they don’t.

To those who, for the last 30 years, have constructed and maintained those non-conforming aids, there are two issues. The Coast Guard hasn’t patrolled or apparently cared much about SmithMountainLake in all those years. And, they contend, in the man-made lake that has 500 miles of shoreline in three counties, the unique aids work.

There might have been no issue, according to one local official, if he hadn’t made the mistake of checking with the Coast Guard before some changes were made to the aids.

Chuck Poss was on a boating safety task force of the Tri-countyLake Administrative Commission (TLAC), which governs the lake and, after a fatal boating accident in 2005, was assigned to determine whether there were any particularly hazardous places on the waterway.

“I did come to realize that there were three major hot spots,” Poss says. “I came up with the idea of attaching ‘Caution, Congested Area’ signs beneath the day markers.” To try to be politically correct, he says, the committee suggested that he get Coast Guard approval for the new signs. “I did this. All the approvals fell in place.”

The signs were installed in 2006, Poss says, but his discussions with the Coast Guard “seemingly awoke a sleeping giant in Hampton Roads.”

“I feel terrible about it myself,” Poss says.

The sleeping giant has a name: John Walters. He is chief of the waterways management section of the Fifth Coast Guard District. “We approve private aids to navigation,” explains Walters, a civilian Coast Guard employee.

“In 1977, the federal courts ruled that SmithMountainLake is considered navigable waters of the United States, which meant there was Coast Guard jurisdiction ... on SmithMountainLake,” Walters says. “In the late ‘80s, early ‘90s, the Smith Mountain Lake Policy Advisory Board [TLAC’s predecessor] invited the Coast Guard to attend a meeting on aids to navigation. We asserted then that all aids to Navigation had to meet Coast Guard Approval” because all navigable waters of the country have to conform to the United States Aids to Navigation System.

“They do not conform,” Walters says.

The system of lighted day markers on the lake was “altered very slightly from the [Coast Guard] regulation markers to make them more readable and to meet the specific safety needs of [Smith Mountain Lake] recreational boaters,” says Ralph Brush, past president of the property owners association on the private lake. “Nevertheless, all of the markers meet the four prime characteristics of the [Coast Guard] regulation [for] lighted daymarkers: red/green color, triangular/square shape, odd/even numbers and green/red flashing lights.”

Where the signs at the lake vary from Coast Guard standards is that the signs have white backgrounds with red or green borders to make them stand out better against the dark shoreline, according to Brush. “The majority of [lake] residents have become accustomed to the present lateral marker system and believe it works well,” he says. “Many residents do not understand, particularly in light of recent county tax increases, why the [Coast Guard] is mandating that counties surrounding Smith Mountain Lake appropriate local tax dollars in excess of $150,000 to fabricate and replace the present lighted daymarkers.”

Walters says the Coast Guard has given TLAC six years to change the signs, although “the date is still being ironed out.”