The open house for public information and input for the removal of the horsepower limit on Cowan Lake was held in December 2012. Area users of the lake jammed the meeting room in downtown Wilmington. It was roughly a 50/50 divided audience with strong feelings on both sides.
The Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) personnel presented information about the proposal. The Cowan Lake meeting was followed by a February 2013 meeting to discuss the plan for Acton Lake at Hueston Woods. The fishing community was split on whether the larger horsepower boats, even at idle speed, is a good idea. The leading opponent at both lakes appeared to be the local sailing clubs.
Over the past months the ODNR has sifted through the public comments, forum feedback and emails. They have announced plans to adopt the a new lake management strategy that will allow watercraft powered by more than ten horsepower to utilize the two lakes provided that they only operate at idle speed. Both lakes are managed by the Division of Parks and Recreation.
This new strategy will be implemented as a pilot program to be tested and evaluated for a two year-period beginning with the 2014 boating season.
Before the new plan can be adopted there will be another round of formal public hearings and comment period. In addition, the proposal will be considered by the Joint Committee on Agency Rule Review (JCARR) which oversees the administrative rule process for state agency regulations. It sounds like the ODNR rather got the motor in front of the boat making an announcement that seemed like a plan was adopted but then not quite yet adopted.
According to the ODNR, there are a handful of lakes that were changed to unlimited horsepower at no-wake speed on a trial basis a few years ago. This management strategy has been very successful at the lakes where it was implemented; Knox lake, La Su An, Oxbow, Rupert, and Burr Oak.
Since the initial trial period, Harrison lake has also adopted the unlimited, no-wake regulation. ODNR maintains that because of these successes and public interest in allowing the same type of operation on other lakes around the state, they have determined that this regulatory change is appropriate for both Cowan and Acton lakes.
Steve Dalton who is an operator of Knox Marine on Knox Lake where the horsepower limit was removed several years ago notes, “The limit was lifted on Knox Lake with a no wake rule being put into place. There is only local sheriff part-time weekend patrol on the lake between Memorial Day and Labor Day each summer. It has been very trouble-free here. We remind our customers that this rule can be changed at any time so please do not abuse the privilege. Really not much has changed. There is always a spring rush to get onto the water and enjoy some peak fishing time.”
The proposals are driven primarily by the desire to provide equal access with reasonable restrictions. Power boaters, regardless of the amount of horsepower, contribute to the maintenance and facility development of waterways all around the state through registration fees and excise taxes, but are prohibited from using many of the state’s waterways.
Previous studies indicate close to 80 percent of the registered power boats in the State of Ohio are larger than 10 horsepower. Yet over 53 percent of the lakes in Ohio are restricted. In essence that says 80 percent of the boaters can only use their boat on 47 percent of the water.
The motor fuel tax is one of the largest contributors to the Waterways Safety Fund which is the Division of Watercraft boaters funds. If you own a 19-foot boat you pay the same registration fee but the boater with the bigger motor pays a tremendously larger amount of fuel tax. Yet they are restricted where that motor may be operated.
In the December 2012 Cowan Lake meeting, Division of Watercraft Chief Norcross concluded, “We’ve had positive response at other lakes. People are naturally hesitant of change at first. That is human nature. When we open up opportunity, it has a positive impact in the area around the lake. We will work with sister divisions to evaluate facilities and infrastructure. We want to improve access and invest boaters money back into the facilities.”
Public comments and recommendations, along with public safety, recreational opportunities, regional economics, and environmental factors are some of the key components considered during the development of a lake management plan. The primary focus for ODNR is to preserve the unique character of the boating experience on each waterway, while providing the best possible service to the boating public and local communities.
Matt Eiselstein, ODNR spokesperson, explains, “At this time, ODNR has not finalized a proposal for submission to JCARR regarding the possible rule change. ODNR would seek public comment as part of the JCARR process, but a timeline would not be finalized until after the specific rule change is finalized and proposed. At any ODNR lake, a change in horse power limits would be accompanied by increased law enforcement presence. Required facility changes that might accompany this possible rule change would be addressed as needed.”
On one hand the ODNR seems to be ready to move forward with the trial plan to allow the larger motors to operate at idle speed on Cowan and Acton lakes. However, on the other hand, it appears they don’t quite have the language ready for additional public input and the JCARR process.
At best this leaves me somewhat confused about when the plans will be finalized and move forward or not move forward. Perhaps I shouldn’t be so surprised since all of this deals with multiple levels of state government.
Larry Moore is a Greene County resident and outdoor columnist.