Commissioners make waves on waterway decision
A room full of Spokane River residents and boaters crowded into the Kootenai County Administration Building basement Monday night to listen to speakers like Kootenai County Sheriff Bob Norris, center, discuss a now repealed 150-foot no excessive wake ordinance. (MADISON HARDY/Press)
Staff Writer | May 25, 2021 1:07 AM
Exactly one year and two days after passing the controversial 150-foot no excessive wake ordinance, Kootenai County commissioners voted to strike the waterways rule in a 2-1 decision.
About 80 people piled into the Kootenai County Administration Building Monday afternoon to speak on the ordinance that banned excessive wake on the Spokane River and the Fernan and Lower Twin lakes. During the hour and a half public meeting, commissioners accepted comments from 18 members of the audience, 10 in favor and eight opposed to maintaining the rule.
Parks and Waterways Resolution 2020-38, passed last year by commissioners on May 21, narrowed the river and lakes by an extra 50-feet on top of the previous 100-foot no-wake area that regulates Kootenai County's waterways.
The rule also established a written definition for an excessive wake, which in the past, Kootenai County Sheriff Marine Division deputies said was too vague to enforce. Language in the resolution describes an excessive wake as any wave that results from a vessel operating at a speed that "creates the most wake, moving quickly and displacing the most water, i.e., plowing."
Appeals ranged from the need for safety to preserving river banks and quality of life.
Avis Stafford, secretary for the Spokane River Association, appealed to the commissioners by referencing the experience of neighbors who were knocked over by excessive waves that reached the shore. She encouraged the commissioners to remove the rule, make the entire river a no excessive wake zone and establish a designated wake surfing area in Lake Coeur d'Alene.
"Please make the right decision and eliminate the 150 foot no excessive wake zone and leave the entire river no excessive wake and in doing so saving a life," Stafford said. "For that reason alone, it is the right decision."
Many members of the Spokane River Association — established in 1987 that aims to "ensure clean water, safe recreational use, prevent beach erosion and protect the habitat of native wildlife" — spoke during the meeting. One member, Susan Steiger, touched on the environmental impact of excessive wakes that increased the rate of shoreline erosion.
"Our dock gets horrible damage every year because of the constant pounding and slamming waves," Steiger said. "Those (excessive) wakes retain 10 to 20 times more energy than the wakes behind regular boats. That's what the safety issue is. That's what the erosion issue is."
Still, many proponents of maintaining the rule opposed implementing too many restrictions on recreationists and urged waiting for definitive data on the effectiveness of the 150-foot resolution.
"We should not limit the people in the county the privilege, the right, the opportunity to take their grandkids, their families to the river," Kurt Hill said in opposition to repealing the rule. "I don't think you've done a lot of research … You don't just shut the door until you actually know it's important (to do so)."
Tom Torgerson, a Kootenai County Parks and Waterways Advisory Board member, pointed out that the commission recommended keeping the 150 rule for another year to allow the sheriff's office to conduct further studies. Torgerson noted that without any evidence, additional restrictions are warrantless and more of a punishment than protection.
"I beg you not to do this. I think it's punitive and overreaching," Torgerson said. "I just hope to God that we can get a group of people together to make people operate vessels in a more respectful way, to take care of issues which are real but do it in a proper way and not mandated and overreaching."
Commissioners Chris Fillios and Bill Brooks have discussed rehashing the ordinance several times since the 2020 boating season ended. However, Commissioner Leslie Duncan, who initially opposed implementing the resolution, argued against revoking the law Tuesday afternoon.
"I am completely against it," Duncan said. "I don't think we should flip-flop, change laws every single year. I think we should give it one more year to have absolute documentation proof that stricter regulations are needed."
In Fillios' mind, the Spokane River is a fixed body of water with an increasing amount of boater traffic, making an accident inevitable.
"I don't think this is a time to wait for more data. I think that's kicking the can down the road," Fillios said. "I think we have data, I think we have experiences, and we have one axiomatic piece of information — that you have a fixed body of water with increased traffic, and there's no sign that it's going to relent."