James City County supervisors and staff are reluctant to set up signage or buoys to mark the presence of shoals in Sandy Bay, owing to concerns about liability and monitoring.
Sandy Bay, a body of water between James City County Marina and the James River adjacent to Jamestown Island, has been a point of concern for local boaters who think the bay’s shoals aren’t marked sufficiently to warn people about hazards, particularly boaters unfamiliar with the area.
At this time, it looks like the extent to which the county will get involved in warning boaters about the hazards is the placement of possible signage in the marina and handouts to distribute to boaters there, James City Parks and Recreation Director John Carnifax said.
The Coast Guard once had buoys in the bay, but removed them. And the county probably won’t try to do something similar because of liability.
“Anytime you’re going to put something out there that someone is going to rely upon … we’d want to have some knowledge that our folks have put it out there with reasonable care and have done some monitoring of that,” County Attorney Adam Kinsman said.
To establish markers would invite liability. To ensure the markers remain accurate over time, the county would have to monitor them, and the county doesn’t have the resources to do that, Kinsman said.
Recently, local boaters have made their concerns known to county officials though phone calls and emails. About 50 boaters signed a petition and sent it to the Coast Guard in October requesting improved warning signage in the bay. All the hoopla prompted a conversation at the Board of Supervisors meeting Tuesday.
“It’s just something that’s reoccurring and I know its starting to reoccur because, thankfully, the weather is getting a little better, so I thought it would be good to have a public discussion,” Supervisor Ruth Larson said.
Larson said she wasn’t in favor of the county assuming the responsibility that would come with signage at the site of the hazards. She floated the idea of general signage at the marina, something Kinsman said would be a more digestible solution from the county’s perceptive.
Carnifax said he and Kinsman would work on handout materials about boater safety to distribute at the marina and signage. He didn’t provide details about an implementation timeline or what the nature of the signage and materials would be, but they would strike a balance between avoiding liability and providing useful information about the area’s hazards.
“There is a sandbar in this area, be cautious. Something like that,” was a suggestion Carnifax made.
Carnifax said the county doesn’t own the waterway and doesn’t have a responsibility to maintain or monitor it.
Supervisor Michael Hipple also expressed his unwillingness for the county to mark the hazards directly. Hipple, a boater himself, noted that there’s a personal responsibility aspect of boating, and boaters are expected to be up on their navigational charts and be knowledgeable about the waterways they travel.
Some of the impetus behind calls for a solution to Sandy Bay have come from organizations, including the James River Association, Carnifax said.
One solution may be a Coast Guard program that allows local or state governments, private citizens and organizations to apply for permission to set up private navigational aids in a waterway.
“There is a process in place for folks to do that,” Carnifax said, noting that boaters have also been known to take matters into their own hands and place informal markers such as PVC pipe to warn of dangers. Such a step has been taken in Sandy Bay.
Supervisor John McGlennon said a private solution would seem to be a good fit for the situation.
“That would seem, to me, to take a lot of liability off of us and also to put it in the hands of people who are out there and who are monitoring it,” McGlennon said.
It’s unclear exactly how frequently boaters hit the shoals. Carnifax said he was aware of several instances of boats getting stuck.
Stacey Brown, the boating safety program manager at the Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, told the Gazette in November that from 2013 to 2018, there was one reportable incident in Sandy Bay
A reportable incident is one in which there are damages more than $2,000, a person suffers injuries that are beyond the scope of first aid or if a person is killed or is reported missing, Brown said. The Sandy Bay incident involved a swimmer getting hit by a jet ski last summer. The swimmer had to get stitches.
The Coast Guard removed two channel buoys within Sandy Bay in late fall 2017. That’s because the sediment built up to a level that the channel was no longer considered a channel and was therefore not the Coast Guard’s responsibility to keep tabs on, Coast Guard official Joey Bucciero told the Gazette in December.
“The Coast Guard is not responsible for dredging waterways. Our role is to establish, monitor and maintain aids to navigation for government, commerce and safety purposes where practical, when possible,” Bucciero said at the time.
Jack Jacobs, 757-298-6007, firstname.lastname@example.org, @jajacobs_