October 9, 2008

Group’s Response Over Lake Markers on Hold

By Courtney Cutright courtney.cutright @roanoke.com 981-3345

The red and green directional markers on Smith Mountain Lake that many boaters take for granted have muddied the waters for one lake- area agency.

The Tri-County Lake Administrative Commission, which has been mandated by the U.S. Coast Guard to replace the more than 300 markers on the lake, on Tuesday delayed again a response to the federal agency -- this time to garner input from its legal counsel.

The lake commission has delayed a response twice already.

In August, TLAC officials drafted a response indicating that it could not commit to replacing the markers because the future ownership of the markers was uncertain. In its federal re-licensing request, Appalachian Power Co., the utility that generates hydroelectric power at Smith Mountain Dam, floated a proposal to take control of the system of navigational markers.

"There is no question in my mind we have given signals to the Coast Guard that the navigational aids on Smith Mountain Lake will be converted to meet their standards," said Stan Smith, chairman of TLAC's navigation committee.

It is murky, though, which lake-area organization will be responsible for replacing the markers and who will foot the associated $150,000 bill.

Appalachian "would like you to continue on and bring the existing system to Coast Guard standards," Liz Parcell, an Appalachian representative, told the TLAC board Tuesday.

In a letter dated July 9, the Coast Guard asked TLAC to fill out applications for replacement markers within four months and set a six-year deadline to replace the markers. According to a letter from Coast Guard Cmdr. Brian Dunn, failure to comply could result in civil penalties -- as much as $100,000 per marker per day.

On Tuesday, TLAC's attorney Johnny Overstreet expressed concerns regarding the threat of fines.

He said, "If we write to the Coast Guard and say, 'Sorry, we can't answer you because we don't know who is going to be doing this,' " TLAC risks racking up $1 million in fines.

"I know where that is going to come from -- TLAC gets its money from the counties," Overstreet said.

The Coast Guard alerted TLAC two years ago that the system of markers did not meet federal standards and must be replaced by Coast Guard-approved markers. Volunteers and staff at TLAC, which is funded by Bedford, Franklin and Pittsylvania counties, have worked for more than a year to develop a six-year timeline to replace the markers. In recent months, Appalachian presented a proposal through its federal re-licensing request to take over responsibility for the markers.

On Tuesday afternoon, the board advised Overstreet to revise the letter for Chairman Chuck Neudorfer, who also serves on the Bedford County Board of Supervisors, before the Nov. 9 deadline set by the Coast Guard.

Neudorfer then will authorize and sign the final letter without input from the full board, as TLAC will not hold a meeting in November because its regular meeting day conflicts with Election Day.

"If he [Overstreet] put his touches on it and it is acceptable, it will just go out," Neudorfer said.

Overstreet said Tuesday the drafted response is missing a key element: TLAC, by definition, is an administrative group that acts on behalf of the three counties that fund it.

Any power TLAC has over the markers derives from the counties, Overstreet said.

In that capacity, he said that he is unsure TLAC has the authority to negotiate with the Coast Guard.

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