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Department of Natural Resources rule would protect events on Lake Lanier

POSTED: September 12, 2008 5:02 a.m.

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The Georgia Department of Natural Resources is considering a rule change that would close a loophole in the Georgia Boat Safety Act.

"We consider this simply a housekeeping measure," said Lt. Col. Homer Bryson, assistant chief of law enforcement for the department. "For us, it would clear up any legal issues that may come up."

But as with any rule change, the DNR is inviting people to weigh in with their opinions.

Basically, the rule targets people who trespass in areas where designated boating events are taking place. For example, if a flatwater canoe race is in progress on Lake Lanier and someone runs his power boat through the race zone, he could be stopped by a DNR ranger.

But the way the rule reads now, the violator couldn’t actually be charged with the offense.

After state legislators passed the Georgia Boat Safety Act (Official Code of Georgia 52-7-1) more than three decades ago, the DNR wrote regulations for carrying out the law. Chapter 391-4-5-.12 of those regulations says if people have a special-event permit, they can set out markers that temporarily restrict public access to a designated area.

But the rule makers forgot to say that if you steer your boat into the designated area and you’re not officially participating in the event, you’re committing a crime.

"The rule change would spell out in specific language that if a person goes into a closed area, it would be a violation of the law," Bryson said.

The 18-member Georgia Boating Advisory Council has studied the proposal and has given its support to the measure. The DNR also will hold a public hearing at 7 p.m. Sept. 15 in the city of Forsyth in South Georgia. Those unable to attend the meeting can submit comments by mail until Oct. 9.

Bryson said the rules apply to any "marine event" that requires a permit from the DNR. That includes canoe and kayak events, sailing regattas, fireworks displays on the lake and even triathlons that have a swimming component.

However, it does not apply to fishing tournaments, which must have a permit from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if they occur on corps lakes, but which always have been exempt from the DNR permitting process.

Bryson said he isn’t sure why fishing tournaments are exempt, but it may be because the participants are dispersed all over the lake rather than concentrated in a defined area.

In the past, there have been occasional conflicts among users in the Clarks Bridge area of Lake Lanier, a popular venue for canoe and kayak events. Some participants complained that power boats were zooming too close to the race course, creating wakes that could endanger people in small, lightweight boats.

But Steve Sorrells, president of the Lanier Canoe and Kayak Club, said in recent years the various users of the lake seem to have reached an understanding.

"We ask that they maintain a speed low enough not to cause a wake," he said. "For the most part, it’s not a problem. Boaters and fishermen usually recognize what’s going on."

Sorrells said the club places "safety boats" at each end of the course to warn away other boaters during an event.

"But we’re not on top of one another," he said. "The longest length of a course for a canoe or kayak race is 1,000 meters, and our lanes probably take up 50 to 60 percent of the width of that channel. There’s still plenty of room for other boaters to pass through."

Technically, a boater who is outside the designated race area would not be breaking the rules, even if he created a huge wake. But Bryson said that person could be charged with violating the 100-foot rule, which requires boaters to cut back to idle speed when they’re within 100 feet of another boat, the shoreline or anything else that might cause a hazard.

Tammy Duran, a board member of the Lake Lanier Sailing Club, said that’s the rule she really wants the DNR to enforce.

"If people would follow the 100-foot rule, this wouldn’t be an issue," she said.

Duran said the proposed rule change could be beneficial to events involving smaller sailboats, whose races are plotted on a triangular course. The boundaries of the course are marked by boats carrying flags.

"We do have a problem with inexperienced boaters wandering into a regatta," she said.

However, Duran is not sure how the rules would apply to races involving sailboats larger than about 25 feet.

"On our permit, we give kind of a general area of where we’re going to be," she said. "But we sail anywhere from Browns Bridge to Buford Dam. The size of the area we need depends on the wind conditions. Neither the corps or the DNR has ever said we couldn’t expand out to a larger area."

Duran said she is concerned that the rules may force the sailing club to race in a tightly defined area.

"If we had to mark off the entire area we use, that could prevent most other boats from using the south end of the lake, and nobody wants that," she said.

But Bryson said the rule change should not have a detrimental effect on any lake users. "All it does is give officers the authority to enforce regulations," he said.



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