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General Assembly scuttles waterway access fees
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General Assembly scuttles waterway access fees

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A legislative snag for recreational paddlers and tourism concerns snapped on Wednesday, via Virginia budget amendment.

Lawmakers looked to deal with boat ramp parking issues when they voted in February 2020 to institute fees at Department of Wildlife Resources-run boating access ramps. But in what one delegate called an unintended consequence, the fees would have created issues for outfitters and other businesses on commonwealth waterways.

The law would have gone into effect July 1, applying a $4, one-time access fee for many canoers, kayakers and tubers. The state budget, which the General Assembly released Wednesday, includes an amendment to squelch that fee until next fiscal year, which starts July 1, 2022. Meanwhile, a study group will look at the costs, benefits and impacts on recreational users, then submit a report to the General Assembly by Oct. 1.

That's welcome news for such businesses as Buchanan-based Twin River Outfitters, which runs trips on the upper James, Cowpasture, Jackson and Maury rivers. Twin River's John Mays said the law only came to his attention in December, after one of his employees noticed a sign about it posted at the Springwood Boat Launch. Mays saw the potential for big trouble for his business, which on a nice, in-season day on the James River might host 200 people looking for a leisurely float.

Few if any of those customers age 17 and older would have any of the following, required to avoid buying the one-day pass: a Virginia hunting, trapping or fishing permit; a Restore the Wild membership; or a Department of Wildlife Resources-issued boat registration. Outfitters wouldn't be legally liable for the passes, but employees would have to explain the situation to customers, Mays said. Helping them sign up online, at the business, would be a logistical high jump.

The Department of Wildlife Resources, formerly known as the Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, owns one access point and maintains five others in Botetourt County. They include the Springwood launch and the Town of Buchanan Park, the latter right next to Mays’ outfitting company. In all, he said, the law would impact 350 landings and about 50 outfitting businesses. The law wouldn't have affected only outfitting businesses, but universities using boats for paddle sports instruction, state park concessionaires and summer camps, as well, Mays said. Other outfitters across the commonwealth want to be heard, too, he said.

DWR's executive director, Ryan Brown, will put together the study group. Del. Terry Austin, R-Botetourt, said he would recommend that Brown appoint Mays or his twin brother and business partner, Dan Mays, among other voices including Friends of the Rivers of Virginia, a Roanoke-based conservation group. That association's chairman, Bill Tanger, said in December that there should be no fee at all to paddle or float.

"If we get invited, we will participate," John Mays said. "We would love that."

Mays, a former Buchanan Town Council member, had taken the issue to Austin and other Botetourt County officials. Austin and three other delegates — Sam Rasoul, D-Roanoke; Betsy Carr, D-Richmond; and Chris Hurst, D-Blacksburg — then sponsored amendments to prevent fee collection for the time being and to assemble the study group. 

The problem, Austin said, is that parking is insufficient for all the vehicles using boat landings. Many who fill the lots have no permits, creating an unfair situation for those who paid for registration. But the law as passed created an unintended consequence, he said.

"I think we need to address the issue associated with the problem, and that is: We don’t have adequate parking for use of the facilities," Austin said. "How we accomplish that capital improvement is what needs to be determined going forward. … Do they have adequate resources and funding to expand the parking lots, or should there be a capital appropriation, or should there be a tax and a fee placed on canoers and kayaks to fund the necessary improvements to expand and accommodate parking in the lots?"

The House passed the bill, which Del. Hyland “Buddy” Fowler, R-Ashland, sponsored, on Feb. 10, 2020. Austin, Carr and Hurst all voted in favor, part of a 77-21 majority. Rasoul, who said in a December 2020 message exchange that he didn't like adding a fee, voted against it. Fowler was not there the day it passed, and no one spoke on the bill, Austin said.

"Typically we would have discussed that bill in caucus and it would have sent a flag up my pole to question Buddy and probably not vote for the bill," Austin said. "It had gone through [the Agriculture Chesapeake and Natural Resources Committee]. I circled back to some of my friends who serve on that committee, and they said this was … portrayed as a parking problem, and we just thought everybody would be in favor of fixing the problem, which is somewhat understandable."

It passed the Senate 34-1 11 days later, with only Sen. Amanda Chase, R-Chesterfield, voting against it. Gov. Ralph Northam signed it into law March 12.

What has happened since then is a good example of how "controversial" legislation should be addressed, Austin said. Brown, the DWR director, has been "very agreeable" over the course of multiple conversations, Austin said. Fowler called Austin and said that he understands the approach that his fellow delegates have taken, and he does not disagree. 

"When we do something in Richmond that is in error, or is not favorable, or is not in the best interests — naturally, we can’t always be in the best interests of everyone," he said. "But when it’s determined that there is a public outcry and it’s not perceived to be in the best interest, this is how we should agree to fix this problem."

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