Whatcom County Council passes new boating rules for Lake Samish after residents reach compromise

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Boaters on Lake Samish get a little more room after the Whatcom County Council approved new boating rules on Jan. 28, 2020. The new rules are the result of a compromise reached by a majority of Lake Samish residents, and a reaction to the boating restrictions put in place last June.

The new rules mean that recreational boaters can once again run their boats as near as 150 feet from the shore of Lake Samish, except for wakeboard boats which will still have to be at least 300 feet away from the shore while wake-boarding or wake-surfing.

The buffer was increased to 300 feet for all boating activities on June 4, 2019, when a small group of Lake Samish residents asked the county council to change the rules because of concerns about safety, water quality and shoreline erosion. Those changes imposed a 6 mph speed limit for all boats within 300 feet from the shore and prohibited wakeboard boats from operating within 300 feet from the shore when water-skiing and wake-surfing – the same as Lake Whatcom.

The decision outraged many other lake residents who felt they didn’t get a say in the process and that the residents could regulate themselves. In the following months a large group of Lake Samish residents came together as neighbors to negotiate a compromise that a majority would accept.

The new rules also create an 800-foot “no-wake” zone near the bridge to the south of Lake Samish Park. This is much smaller than the half-mile “no-wake” zone designated last June, but is still larger than the 500-foot zone that was in place before then.

N. Lake Samish Rd Bridge No. 107

During the Jan. 28 public hearing on the compromise proposal, many of those who commented wore blue t-shirts emblazoned with a “Save Lake Samish Boating” logo.

Ron Goodman said his family has lived on Lake Samish since the 1920s. He remembers helping his family put the buoys in the lake when state law created the original buffer for boats at 150 feet from the shore.

“Last year, when those buoys got moved a half-mile away from the bridge it was actually shocking,” he said, “because it was a solution that doesn’t work to a problem that didn’t even exist.”

Goodman said he supports the compromise proposal, and also said he would like to see fewer buoys around the bridge. “There’s probably six or seven on both sides, it’s just an overkill,” he said.

Brett Molesky, a member of the Water Sports Industry Association (WSIA) and former Lake Samish resident, said the WSIA recommends a 250-foot buffer for wake-boarding and wake-surfing – 50 feet less than the buffer agreed to in the compromise proposal.

Brett Molesky speaking at Jan. 28 Whatcom County Council meeting

Molesky said the compromise “is above and beyond industry standards and allows everyone to enjoy their favorite activity on Lake Samish.” He recommended more boat launch signage and education for swimmers and paddle boarders.

Other supporters of the compromise told the council that boat waves are not a major cause of shore erosion, and that the June 4 rules caused more boat crowding and created more safety problems than they solved.

The county council approved the compromise proposal 5–to–2, with council members Todd Donovan and Carol Frazey opposed.

Frazey said she is concerned about the increase in different types of recreation that are occurring on the lake — the proliferation of stand-up paddle-boarding and bigger boat sizes — and giving everybody enough space and safety. “I’m thinking 20 years down the road it’s going to be more boats, more different activities non-motorized and motorized,” she said.

Councilmember Tyler Byrd said both sides can use safety as an argument to get what they want, so the council must try to look at what data they do have. Byrd said he’s asked the Sheriff’s Department and they haven’t been able to provide him with any examples of accidents that have occurred during the time when the buffer distance was 150 feet. He noted that if there’s an accident and safety becomes a concern in the future, the council could possibly consider allowing paddle-boarding only on lakes that don’t allow boats.

Byrd thanked the Lake Samish residents for coming together and finding a solution. “I really think you’ve gone out of your way to do what’s right and find a compromise that everyone is favorable for,” he said, “and I think that has a lot of value to it and I think we need to support it.”

Councilmember Rud Browne praised the civility of Lake Samish residents for coming up with a solution themselves. He said the number of people who want to go boating is certainly going to increase, the size of those boats are increasing and the size of the wakes they generate is increasing.

“This group has an opportunity to work together to regulate the behavior of the people who live on the lake,” he said, “and I think there’s a will to do that.”

Browne offered that the next challenge for the group will be to band together to regulate those from outside the area who come to Lake Samish for recreation.

Donovan said his biggest issue with the compromise proposal is the two different buffer distances — 150 feet for all boats and 300 feet for wake-boarding — and how to enforce the two different distances.

“Is it cleaner to just have one distance rather than two?” Donovan wondered. “So I support some elements of this version of the proposal here but that split distance thing I guess I’m having trouble with.”

Byrd told Donovan that the Sheriff’s office has said they will find a way to enforce the two different buffer distances.

Link to January 28, 2020 Whatcom County Council meeting agenda

Video of Jan. 28, 2020, Whatcom County Council meeting

Written by Mike Curtiss

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