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Years later, little movement on a shoreline plan

South Boston News
SoVaNow.com / September 14, 2016
Exasperated homeowners and builders on Kerr Reservoir who want to install new docks at waterfront properties have been stymied for more than two years by a moratorium imposed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers as it updates its Shoreline Management Plan (SMP).

One local realtor, Karin Kuhn, said for the most part, she has not experienced too many problems with marketing lakefront real estate as a result of the dock-building moratorium. But, she added, “If you are the one sale that has been delayed, it certainly must feel like you have been singled out.”

Kuhn cited two examples in which property sales have been stymied because prospective homeowners on the lake were unable to gain assurances that they could install a dock or clear vegetation on the property, which has also been frozen under the moratorium. “The sale of a lot in the Prestwould Subdivision [near Clarksville] has been delayed about a year due to the inability to secure a dock permit. This in fact will have income tax ramifications, as the lot could have been considered part of the sale of a primary residence if done in a timely fashion,” said Kuhn.

“I also have a listing that the ‘curb appeal’ will be affected due to the inability to secure a vegetation modification permit,” she added.

Recently, relief was rumored to be in reach as word began circulating around the community that the nearly three-year-old dock moratorium was about to be lifted and a new plan put in place. However, Chuck Opet, USACE acting operations manager for John H. Kerr Dam and Reservoir, says it’s unlikely that the moratorium that was imposed Jan. 17, 2014 will be lifted before January 2017 at the earliest.

Corps officials use the Shoreline Management Plan to manage the shoreline at John H. Kerr Reservoir. The plan describes the types of private uses allowed for boat docks, walkways, vegetative clearings, and erosion control structures. Shoreline allocations, rules, regulations and other information on use of the shoreline are addressed in detail.

The last update of the Shoreline Management Plan for the reservoir, known on the Virginia side as Buggs Island Lake, took place in 1995.

Realtors, homeowners and dock builders say some of their frustration is tied to the length of time it’s taking the Corps to revise the SMP — going on three years. Others say the problem is the lack of communication or misinformation coming from the USACE.

One oft-cited example of misinformation occurred in 2014 as the Corps began revising the SMP. Then-operation manager Michael Womack said he expected to have an updated SMP in place by spring 2015. In fact, a draft plan was completed in April 2015, placed on the Corps’ website and submitted up the chain of command for review. That’s the last official word the public received about the plan, which according to Opet is still under review in Atlanta by legal and engineering staff.

Not until officials there are satisfied with the SMP changes will the plan return to the Wilmington, N.C. district office for a final review and sign-off by the USACE commander, Col. Kevin P. Landers. Following Lander’s approval, Opet said the SMP will be released to the public and the moratorium lifted.

In addition to the moratorium on new dock construction, the Corps has tightened the rules for homeowners with permitted buoys who want to upgrade to a dock, and those with existing docks looking to make certain improvements. Before departing, Womack provided assurances that as long as you have a current buoy or dock, you can make certain upgrades and improvements as long as you follow the terms of the 1995 Shoreline Management Plan. He emphasized that property owners with permitted buoys who want to replace the buoy with a dock during the moratorium period would be able to do so as long as they followed the 1995 guidelines. The same was true for those who wanted to replace or expand an existing dock or add a gazebo.

However, Blake Goforth, Shoreline Chief Ranger, said recently that no such changes have been approved by the Corps during the moratorium.

Responding to queries about why the Corps is taking so long to update the SMP, Goforth said, “My staff works extremely hard to protect and manage the shoreline at John H. Kerr Reservoir. One of our objectives is to achieve a balance between permitted uses and protection of natural and cultural resources. That objective is not always easy to achieve but we strive to ensure a quality resource is enjoyed for all the general public.”

He offered the answer additionally in response to two other questions: why the terms of the moratorium as explained by Womack differ from current practices, and why the moratorium is still in effect

Golforth said he has no explanation for why it has taken the Corps nearly three years to update the current SMP. While there are some modifications proposed to the rules for dock size and spacing, he said to his knowledge, none of the reviewers have raised any questions or found problems with these reforms. Being newly promoted — he took over from Shannon McMannus, who was transferred to Jordan Lake near Durham, N.C. — Goforth said he could not respond to the question of whether the current review period has been unusually protracted.

Since the issuance of the SMP moratorium, there have been three key changes in Corps personnel overseeing Kerr Lake. In addition to Goforth, Chuck Opet took over as operations manager after Michael Womack left to cover several temporary assignments. Also, command of the Wilmington District passed from Col. Steve Baker to Landers.

Opet suggested that timing was a factor affecting the release of the final SMP. September is the end of the federal government’s fiscal year, which means that most agencies, including the USACE, are focusing on budget issues, Opet explained. Then, between Oct. 1 and the end of the year, personnel with excess vacation or leave time are in a “use it or lose it situation,” and therefore many of them are using their leave. For these reasons, Opet said he did not anticipate seeing the new SMP before January 2017.

Goforth added that changes to the dock size and spacing requirements for community docks — which will be imposed on all docks installed after the plan — is the reason the dock moratorium will remain in effect until the new plan is adopted. For instance, Goforth said, “If approved by our division office, the spacing requirements will change for community docks. The following spacing requirements will be required on either side of the gangwalk of a community dock: 2-5 slips, 200 feet, 6-10 slips, 300 feet, 11-15 slips, 400 feet, 16-20 slips, 500 feet.” As these changes have not been approved, Goforth said, he cannot issue a dock permit incorporating these new rules.

Kuhn said she has seen instances where the Corps is already enforcing provisions found in the draft plan that were not in the 1995 SMP. She explained, “Although the new Shoreline Plan is not in effect, we have seen that some of the new measures are being used. For example, an instance where the homeowner had given a deeded easement to someone for another dock permit to be issued along the shoreline. Under the proposed plan that second dock permit would no longer be allowed. As we did the sale, the second dock had to come out of the water. They [the Corps] would not re-issue the ‘deeded easement’ permit.”

For now, as people await the issuance of the new shoreline management plan, the only advice Goforth and Opet have is to direct any questions relating to the SMP to the John H. Kerr Project shoreline management staff at (434) 738-6143.

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