Officials address Smith Lake concerns at Brushy Pond town hall meeting

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Local and state officials addressed questions from the Smith Lake community Thursday night at the Brushy Pond Community Center. Left to right are Alabama Power Team Leader Steven Fletcher, ALEA Marine Patrol Capt. Gary Buchanan, Rep. Corey Harbison, Cullman County Commissioner Garry Marchman, Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry and Sen. Garlan Gudger. (W.C. Mann for The Cullman Tribune)

BRUSHY POND, Ala.  – At the Brushy Pond Community Center Thursday evening, local and state officials addressed questions from the Smith Lake community. Alabama Power Team Leader Steven Fletcher; Alabama Law Enforcement Agency (ALEA) Marine Patrol Capt. Gary Buchanan; Rep. Corey Harbison, R-Good Hope; Cullman County Commissioner Garry Marchman; Cullman County Sheriff Matt Gentry; and Sen. Garlan Gudger addressed pre-submitted questions and interacted with the audience for almost two hours. 

Items on the agenda included:

  • Increasing water patrols on the lake – Buchanan said that ALEA’s Marine Patrol has been short-handed for some time, with only one officer assigned to the lake, but he also stated that more officers are coming soon. Addressing possible increases of patrols on holidays and holiday weekends, he explained that increased coverage at one lake would mean decreased coverage or even no coverage at another.  Gentry added that the sheriff’s office backs up ALEA during high-traffic times with its own deputies and boats, but also noted that his office does not have the jurisdictional authority of ALEA and cannot do certain things on the water.
  • Enforcing speed, safety and drinking rules on the lake 
    • Asked about speed limits on Smith Lake, Buchanan said is no speed limit on Alabama lakes and likely will not be any time soon. The issue, he explained, is that common speed tracking devices like radar do not work well on fiberglass boats, and new laser-based methods require a stationary platform on shore.  Both Buchanan and Harbison noted that boaters traveling at obviously excessive speeds can be cited for “careless operation” or “reckless operation.”
    • Asked about “center line” rules of boat operation, Buchanan reviewed the marine “rules of the road,” including driving boats right of the center line of the channel, passing to the right of oncoming boats and yielding to boats coming from the right side.
    • The topic of drinking rules was rolled into the next subject of discussion.
  • What is wet and what is dry on the lake – On the topic of alcohol on the lake, Buchanan said that Smith Lake is a unique location, shared by three dry counties that have wet municipalities. The lake was two marinas, labeled as “community development zones,” and a small spot nearest to Double Springs in Winston County where alcohol is allowed. Other than those areas, Buchanan emphasized, Smith Lake is dry. Consumption of alcohol on the lake, and even transportation of sealed alcohol containers on the lake, is illegal. 
    • When asked if the sheriff’s office would consider searching coolers at boat launches, Gentry said searches without reasonable cause violate the Fourth Amendment, but reckless behavior or the odor of alcohol would constitute reasonable cause.
    • After panelists had spoken about the dangers of alcohol on the lake and the status of the lake as dry, an audience member asked why alcohol permits had been issued for the marinas in the first place.  Harbison responded that the original state bill that would allow alcohol sales there was too wide-ranging, and said he agreed to vote in favor of establishing the wet zones only after getting a set of regulations and specific restrictions in place.
  • The driver’s license age for boaters – Buchanan explained that boaters can receive a learner’s permit at age 12 and can drive a boat alone at age 14.  A change to that regulation would have to come through the Legislature.
  • Wake restriction areas
    • Increasing no wake zones in populated areas – Harbison told the crowd he opposed a recent bill that would have created a 100-foot no-wake zone on Smith Lake because it would create a narrow channel in the middle of the lake where everyone who wanted to go fast would concentrate, leading to likely increases in high-speed collisions. Fletcher noted that Smith Lake now has more than 100 miles more shoreline now than it did in the 1960s due to shore erosion, some of that due to waves from wakes washing out the shore.
    • Illegal use of buoys – Some lake residents place idle speed-only buoys on the water in front of their properties to cut down on splashing from wakes.  Buchanan said such buoys can only be placed by permit from ALEA; they are otherwise illegal.

Watch the complete Brushy Pond town hall meeting, including these topics and others brought up during a question and answer session, at www.facebook.com/CullmanTribune/videos/2337449156349417/

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W.C. Mann

craig@cullmantribune.com