By Greg Baker - March 2021
In the fall of 2014, as the relatively new sport of wake surfing was becoming wildly popular, both the Lake Anna Advisory Committee (LAAC) and the Lake Anna Civic Association (LACA) started to hear from concerned citizens about the dangers surrounding the large wakes generated when practicing the sport. Ann Heidig, the Chair of LAAC at the time, established a Wake Surfing Committee, which included a member of the LACA Board, to research the new sport and what restrictions, if any, should be placed on the sport.
The LAAC Wake Surfing Committee discovered that both Maryland and Pennsylvania had passed statewide laws requiring wake surfing to have a 200-foot setback from the shoreline, docks, or people in the water. Additionally, the Maryland law also requires a 200-foot setback from other boats in the water. These laws were supported by the wake surfing industry. Specifically, in a letter dated February 1, 2012 the Executive Director of the Water Sports Industry Association, Larry Meddock, commended the Pennsylvania Boating Advisory Board for a “reasonable” approach on regulating wake surfing. He further wrote that “research supports that a wave, which is one foot or less, does not have the force to damage shore or property and the 200-foot distance will ensure that wave size or less.”
As it turns out, at the same time, it was learned that Spotsylvania County already had an ordinance on the books stating that “No person shall operate any motorboat or vessel towing an individual on skis, surfboard or similar device within 200 feet of the shoreline of Lake Anna.” Even though this law exists in Spotsylvania, Louisa County did not have a similar law. Since this was a local law, the Department of Wildlife Resources’ (formally known as DGIF) Conservation Police would not enforce a law stricter than state law.
By the fall of 2016 wake surfing was exploding in popularity. Along with many more wake surfing boats appearing on Lake Anna, the complaints to LACA, LAAC and the county supervisors related to the large wakes created by the sport of wake surfing also exploded. The complaints primarily focused on safety issues - large wakes hitting unsuspecting boaters or swimmers, concerns about erosion, damage to bulkheads and rip rap and the issue of “fair use” of the shared space on the lake. When one or more wake surfers engage in their sport in a narrow section of the lake, it is difficult for others to enjoy their favorite pastime such as water skiing, wake boarding, kayaking, canoeing or stand-up paddle boarding.
In response to the rise in popularity of the sport and the corresponding complaints, Spotsylvania County passed a resolution to request that the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (DGIF, now DWR) prohibit wake surfing within 200 feet and all other towed water sports within 100 feet of the shorelines, piers, docks and boathouses on Lake Anna. A copy of the resolution can be seen here.
A motion for a similar resolution was proposed at the Louisa County Board of Supervisors, but failed to receive a “second” and therefore died prior to being voted on by their supervisors. Orange County passed a resolution to support Spotsylvania County’s efforts. LACA’s Board also passed a resolution to support the effort. The failed Louisa County Resolution can be seen here and the Orange County Resolution can be seen here.
In the fall of 2016 Spotsylvania County Supervisor Greg Cebula took the newly passed resolutions from Spotsylvania and Orange County to both DGIF’s Wildlife, Boat and Law Enforcement Committee as well as the whole board. As a result of these meetings, the DGIF Board recommended that staff work on a solution to address wake surfing on a statewide basis rather than attempting to address the issue through various local regulations.
DGIF staff organized two 8-hour “stakeholder” meetings at their headquarters in Richmond in early 2017. The stakeholder meetings were attended by both members of LACA and LAAC, Supervisor Cebula and other concerned citizens from Lake Anna, Lake Gaston, Lake Kerr, Smith Mountain Lake and even the Rappahannock River. It was also attended by lobbyists from the wake surfing industry which included Larry Meddock from WSIA, representatives from BoatUS, the National Marine Manufacturers Association, Volvo Penta (an engine manufacturer for wake surf boats) and several owners of marinas that catered to wake surfing. The stakeholder meetings were mediated by Virginia Commonwealth University.
Over the two full days of mediation, attendees from both viewpoints discussed the pros and cons of regulating the sport. The extremes included banning wake surfing altogether from one side to doing nothing to regulate the sport from the other side. After two long days of mediation, there were several potential recommendations:
- Both sides agreed that education was clearly needed to help the wake surfing community understand the dangers of operating too close to the shoreline or a dock.
- There is ample research and agreement that large wakes do dissipate over a 200-foot distance.
- There was a consensus that the current 50-foot setbacks for all boats were not sufficient for towed sports.
- There was reasonable consensus that all towed sports should have at least a 100-foot set back. Clearly a 75-foot tow rope operating within 50 feet of a dock is a dangerous situation.
- The wake surfing supporters were not opposed to the proposed 200-foot setbacks so long as there was not a different setback for wake surfing versus any other towed sport.
At the end of the two days of mediation, the mediators asked if there was any consensus to share back with the board of DGIF. After 16 hours of mediation, the two sides had barely budged off of their initial positions. In the end, to avoid “failure” as the mediators suggested the effort would have been without a consensus, a vote was taken to propose a 150-foot setback for all towed water sports. This vote was framed by the mediators as a way to have some “success” after two full days of discussions. It was an effective tactic and the suggestion was passed by a substantial majority of those in attendance. The reports written by the VCU mediators can be read here.
Unfortunately, the DGIF Board failed to take any action after receiving the results from the stakeholder meeting. The Board felt that to regulate this issue would be “stepping on the toes” of the General Assembly. They felt that the issue should be resolved with legislation not regulation.
After this apparent defeat for Spotsylvania County, the prior DGIF Boating Laws Administrator, Charlie Sledd who was a participant in these meetings, proposed a solution that ultimately led to the establishment of the first, second and now the third no-wake surfing zone in the state of Virginia and perhaps the country. Mr. Sledd explained that there was precedent for a “no activity” zone. In the southeast corner of the state, there is an approved no water skiing zone on a narrow section of a curvy river.
Mr. Sledd suggested that if the local county supported a “no wake surfing zone” that DGIF might be inclined to approve the application.
To help understand the process for applying for a regulatory buoy in the State of Virginia, an applicant must first apply for the regulatory buoy with their local county and pay the appropriate processing fee. The county must then notify all adjacent property owners of the application and allow for the property owners to provide feedback. The county also sends the application to LAAC for their comments. Once all comments are received from the public and LAAC, the county then sends the completed application with all commentary to DWR, usually with a recommendation to approve or reject the application. However, DWR has the ultimate authority to approve, reject or approve the application with modifications.
In May of 2017, several property owners from Kelly’s Landing applied for the first no wake surfing zone in the state and perhaps the country. Kelly’s Landing is on a particularly narrow section of Upper Pamunkey Creek. The application was approved by DGIF in June of 2017 and the first no wake surfing zone was officially installed in late July.
Subsequently, the residents of Southwind Shores applied for a no wake surfing zone on Terry’s Run which was approved in late 2019. The most recent no wake surfing zone application from residents of Runnymede was approved by DWR in early 2021. A map of the three zones can be seen below. (Please note that the location of each zone is an approximation.)
This year, Delegate Byron from Smith Mountain Lake proposed HB 2083 that would require a 200-foot setback for wake surfing from docks and people in the water. The legislation would have only applied to Smith Mountain Lake. Shorelines were later added to the proposed bill. The delegate was ultimately pressured by lobbyists to reduce the setback to 150 feet and then she was pressured to send the bill back to committee for further revisions. Delegate Byron refused and HB 2083 died.
With the failure of this legislation, there are now several residents of Smith Mountain Lake that are actively pursuing no wake surfing zones.
LACA believes that the DGIF Board was ultimately correct in believing that the safety, erosion, property damage and fair use issue related to large wake surfing wakes will need to be resolved with legislation similar to the law in Maryland and Pennsylvania.
A 200-foot setback for wake surfing and a 100-foot setback for all other towed sports is the perfect compromise in LACA’s view. It allows for enthusiasts to enjoy wake surfing in reasonable harmony with those that are frustrated with the large wakes and the damage that they produce. LACA’s position is to support legislation that will ultimately require a 200-foot setback for wake surfing and a 100-foot setback for all other towed water sports from docks, piers, boathouses, boat ramps, shorelines or people in the water.