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City looks to update no-wake ordinance

While Suffolk has several no-wake zones established along portions of three waterways, the city is looking to update its ordinance as it expects more requests to establish them due to increased development.

Deputy City Manager Scott Mills told City Council at its July 17 meeting that the city does not have a lot on the books regarding no-wake zones — an area where boats are expected to go at slow speeds to minimize their wake.

City staff recommended that the city’s code be changed to be consistent with state code.

“I would recommend that we provide definitions in our code … and a larger section to address recklessness, the enforcement of no-wake zones, penalties for enforcement and the disposition of fines if there is a violation and citation in a no-wake zone,” Mills said.

Mills said items the city should consider for its updated no-wake zone code include:

  • The chance of injury or damage to people or property
  • Width of the waterway
  • Location of channel in relation to the shoreline
  • Density of wharfs along the shoreline
  • Location of marinas, public boat ramps and public fishing piers

A city ordinance on the books since 1976 denotes that motorboats operating in a public waterway cannot operate “at such excessive speed or in such excessive manner to cause swells or wakes injurious to other boats or vessels, or to bulkheads, piers and shorelines.”

It also says that when the operator of a motorboat approaches or passes other vessels, or is approaching or passing piers, docks, boathouses or other people in the water, should slow down and operate the boat at a safe speed.

However, the current ordinance also stipulates that no one can be convicted of violating it unless appropriate signs are there indicating that boaters are required to reduce speed or that there should be no wake in the area.

There are no-wake zones established on portions of the Nansemond River, Bennett’s Creek and Chuckatuck Creek.

The city does not have a formal application process for no-wake zones, though Mills said it has

received two requests for no-wake zones on the Nansemond River — one along the Riverwood subdivision waterfront, and the other along the waterfront of the Riverbluff subdivision, within the Hillpoint Farms development.

Both applications, he said, went to the state Department of Game and Inland Fisheries first before they were referred to the city.

“There’s been some confusion on our staff as to exactly what the procedural requirement is for establishing (no-wake zones),” Mills said. “We have done research, we’ve toured the waterways to view the existing no-wake zones, and done research of other localities’ codes that have no-wake zones.”

James Taylor of the Riverwood Owners’ Association Inc. told council that he is embarrassed that an application it filed to install regulatory markers in the Nansemond River adjacent to the Riverwood community has yet to be acted upon after more than 17 months.

He said the application was filed with the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries Feb. 20, 2018 and less than a month later was forwarded to the city, where he said it has languished without action. He said by the time the council gets its request, it will have been two years since it put in the application, and there will be further erosion on the 20- to 30-foot bluffs along parts of the community.

“I think that’s an embarrassment, especially when you consider it doesn’t cost you a penny to put the markers in the river,” Taylor said. “Not one cent. Our board of directors approved the process of submitting the application, we approved the purchase of the buoys and we have someone standing by right now to drop the buoys and anchor them in the water. We could have them in the water next week.”

Mills said there will be two applications for council to consider in the near future, including the one from Riverwood.

He said there are three ways a no-wake zone can be established — by an agency of the United States such as the Coast Guard, by the state through the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, or by a locality after enacting an ordinance that “parallels general law regulating the expectation of vessels on any water within its limits.” A locally-established no-wake zone would be enforced by city police, he said, but if it’s approved by the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, state and local enforcement officers can also enforce it. Suffolk Police has its own marine patrol division.

Councilman Roger Fawcett said he’s heard concerns from people because there’s no enforcement of no-wake zones on Bennett’s Creek between Decoys Seafood restaurant and the mouth of the James River. He said he is concerned about boats with lots of horsepower creating larger wakes, and aircraft that create wakes when it lands in the water. He also wants to see more markings for no-wake zones on Bennett’s Creek.

“There’s been a large amount of erosion due to large wakes from boats going up and down the channel, because they’re getting some pretty good size craft in there,” Fawcett said.

Councilman Mike Duman said the changes are needed.

“It’s something that we need to do, probably starting with the ordinance, and (then) penalties for violations of the ordinance and how it’s going to be enforced,” Duman said.

Mills said he could have a draft ordinance for council to review at its Aug. 21 meeting.