RICHMOND — Rhonnie Smith’s grandchildren often are unable to play in the water just outside his house at Smith Mountain Lake.
When wakesurfing boats come by pulling a surfer, large waves slam into the shoreline and the dock. Once during the summer, Smith said, his grandchildren were playing down in the water by the dock, and the waves threw the children into the dock.
“We pull the children out of the water any time a wakesurfing boat goes by and won’t let them back in until the boats have left the area,” said Smith, who purchased his home at the lake 12 years ago.
Smith and other homeowners at the lake have grown increasingly frustrated with how to regulate the growing water sport. After a few years of trying to educate the wakesurfing community about how to respect the homeowners and shoreline with little avail, the homeowners have taken their concerns to the Virginia General Assembly.
Del. Kathy Byron, R-Bedford, who represents lake residents, is carrying legislation aimed at keeping wakesurfing — in which boats create waves big enough for people to surf without the need of a tow rope — 200 feet from the shoreline.
“It will keep people involved in water sports at Smith Mountain Lake and those who enjoy the lake at their docks safe, it will reduce the erosion of property and mitigate the destruction of property,” Byron told a subcommittee of the House Agriculture Committee on Monday.
The panel of legislators backed the bill, which still has numerous hurdles to overcome if it were to become law.
Wakesurfing has exploded at the lake since about 2017. It’s wildly popular at the 20,000-acre lake, but critics say the wake from the boats erode shorelines and disturb those who live at the lake.
Wakesurfing boats have a specially designed hull to create a perfectly curled, large wake. The boats used for this sport move fairly slowly, generally between 10 and 12 mph.
Dawn Saunders has owned a home at the lake for 25 years, and she said it’s situated in a cove shaped like an hourglass.
“The wakers love it,” Saunders told the Senate panel.
Saunders said the wakesurfing boats will repeatedly cycle through the cove and past her dock. She said the erosion to the shoreline has caused a portion of her dock to sink. She said over the last seven years, damage from wakesurfing has cost her more than $48,000.
Randy Stow, a member of the Smith Mountain Lake Water Safety Council, said there has been increasing complaints about wakesurfing. He said there are reports of injuries, near-injuries and damage to docks and boats. So far, the issue has mostly been dealt with through education. Stow said the Water Sports Industry Association has encouraged wakesurfers to stay at least 200 feet away from docks.
“However the problem persists, and it’s increasing,” Stow told the committee.
No one testified to the committee in opposition to the bill. Del. Robert Bloxom, R-Accomack, who knew a lot about wakesurfing but hasn’t done it himself, said he’d like to get more feedback from the water sports industry about the bill.
As the water sport has gained in popularity, other legislatures have taken up the issue of how to protect shorelines and ensure safety. Byron said she wanted to narrowly tailor the bill in the hopes that people can wakesurf and those on the shore aren’t negatively impacted.
“We want the people to enjoy the lake, and it’s large enough for them to do it safe in open waters and not endanger children, boats and the shoreline,” Byron said.