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Public Hearing But No Vote Scheduled on Boat Ramps Thursday at Commissioners Court

Canyon Lake Boat Ramp #1. Image courtesy of Mark Robinson, MJR Photography.

Another public hearing on Canyon Lake boat ramps is scheduled for the weekly Comal County Commissioners Court meeting at 8:30 a.m. Thursday, June 24, but no action is expected on Order #463, Adopting Regulations for the Use of County Boats.

Comal County Public Information Officer Carey Zayas said the agenda item was not posted publicly in time for it to be put to a vote, making it less likely that new rules and guidelines for boat ramps will be in place before the busy July 4 holiday weekend.

Thursday’s public hearing follows several weeks of contentious debate that began at the court’s June 10 meeting and spilled over into a public hearing on June 16.

Just “getting out on the lake” via boat ramps is complicated.

On June 10, Canyon Lake’s Pct. 1 Commissioner Donna Eccleston drafted and presented to the court new regulations that clarified and updated 27-year-old language included in a 1994 order still in place today.

The original order seemed straightforward. It limits use of boat ramps to the launch and recovery of boats only. No fishing, partying, swimming or loitering is allowed. Other offenses include parking, picnicking, obstructing and ignoring requests or orders from law enforcement.

However, things have changed — a lot — since 1994. Boat ramps designed for small neighborhoods are now overrun in the summer by thousands of visitors each day. Traffic is a nightmare for both residents and recreationalists. No two boat ramps are the same, and few offer adequate parking for vehicles pulling trailers or for kayyakers worried they might be towed without trailers affixed to their cars.

Then there are the thousands of scofflaws — or people who simply don’t know the rules — who ignore or overlook safety concerns in stifling heat and swim, fish and party at boat ramps.

Eccleston said she redrafted boat ramp rules to clarify things for both the public and for law-enforcement officers who must safely and consistently enforce the same rules for boat ramps that are completely dissimilar.

“We can only try to enhance the safety and clarity of what you can do in that space, but people will still be coming,” she said in an interview with MyCanyonLake.com. “Everything you couldn’t do before you still can’t do, and there’s nothing new in this order.”

However, many Canyon Lake residents who spoke out against her propsed changes say boat ramps are perfectly safe on weekdays and they are entitled to walk across them in order to access the lake to swim or fish.

However, accessing the Canyon Lake shoreline legally is difficult. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers (USACE) controls the shoreline. Without a boat, the general public can only get onto the lake at parks operated by both USACE and county.

USACE’s Overlook Park is free, but the Water Oriented Recreation District of Comal County (WORD) charges an entrance fee for Comal and Canyon parks, which it leases from USACE. Those parks close when they reach capacity on busy weekends.

Many Canyon Lake residents on social media said they feel they are penalized by rules that keep everyone off the shoreline except for boaters and those wealthy enough to own “lakefront property.”

At the public hearing last week, County Judge Sherman Krause said commissioners responded to  complaints from residents by adding more specific language to the revised regulations, and by offering some suggestions about ways to improve conditions at boat ramps.

He said he hopes the court’s new language also will ease confusion about what’s acceptable and what’s not.

For example, Krause suggested the county install signs clarifying Guadalupe-Blanco River Authority’s  (GBRA) no-swimming rules within 200 feet on either side of the center-line of a boat ramp. The county doesn’t care if a pick-up truck with a company name parks at a ramp in order to launch a boat, but will step in if it catches businesses using parking spaces to advertise water-related services.

He warned it is illegal to park at a boat-ramp area if you are planning to get on someone else’s boat. However, kayakers who are launching watercraft shouldn’t worry about being towed because their cars aren’t pulling boat trailers.

“Some people may not like this, but all of those roadways that lead into there are public,” he said. “People can park on those. When we say only one vehicle that is launching or recovering a boat can park in the designated spots, that’s what we’re talking about.”

Eccleston suggested kayakers take photos of themselves standing next to their kayaks and place them on the dashboard of their cars so law enforcement can distinguish them from illegally parked vehicles.

At the public hearing, Pct. 2 Constable Mark Cheatum also addressed the court to explain what happens when rules aren’t firmly in place.

He said kayakers pull up with vessels strapped to the roof of their Volkswagen bugs, unsure of where to park and fearful of being ticketed. Companies who rent pontoons ferry as many as 30 people to boat ramps then hope they will stay out of danger while waiting for their pontoon rental to return to the ramp and disgorge another 30 people onto busy ramps.

“We get lots of people all over and we’ve had accidents and so forth,” he said. “The no-wake area of the lake needs to be where there is no swimming in the wake area. If 200 feet goes beyond the no-wake area, that’s great. People get cut arms with boats running it.”

At Comal Park, jet skiers “take off like a rocket” in no-wake zones and people also get injured, Cheatum said.

Mark Robinson, who owns a hotel by Boat Ramp #1, thanked commissioners for tweaking original language about boat-ramp access to focus on vehicular traffic instead of pedestrian traffic.

Earlier this month, he took to Facebook to dub commissioner’s proposed regulations “rules for thee but not for me.”

“All other visitors and local residents of Canyon Lake who do not own or reside on lakefront property or who do not own or have use of watercraft may only access Canyon Lake through the limited and restricted use of Corp of Engineer boat ramps, private boat ramps or limited federal and county park access,” he said on Facebook. “…the proposed ordinance effectively creates two classes of citizen with respect to and access and use of Canyon Lake — a public, taxpayer-funded waterway.”

At the hearing, Robinson — who argues there is little evidence boat ramps are dangerous, especially off-season — reminded commissioners that for most of the year, Canyon Lake is quiet. According to his math, overcrowding only occurs over twelve summer weekends.

“One of the most-valued privileges is pedestrian access to the lake,” he said, quoting language from USACE’s website. “Most Corps land is open to public pedestrian traffic.”

Sherry Rohde, whose family has operated Sunchaser Marine, Inc. for 40 years, wasn’t as pleasant.

She referred to USACE, Joint Base San Antonio (JBSA), WORD and Suntex Marinas as “predatory monsters” who mismanage assets like parks and boat ramps, and whose interests don’t align with those of the public.

“There is little to no communication from the organizations that control this lake with our community,” she said. “They accept no input. It is like a dictator oversees the Corps of Engineers and JBSA-Canyon Lake. Please help us.”

Kayaker and longtime Canyon Lake resident Gloria Meehan, speaking for an informal alliance of citizens also in attendance at the meeting, called for a community coalition to address many of the issues endemic to boat ramps.

“All of us are interested in pursuing better outcomes for everyone at the lake,” she said. “We live here, we want to help.

“As lake residents, we recognize that updating the 1994 boat ramp ‘regulations’ to better fit where we’re at in 2021 is a good start, but there are many other issues that have gone on for way too long, which must continue to be focused on in the mid- to long-term, to improve access, safety and parking at the lake’s boat ramps,” she said. “While some of the boat ramps have commonalities — such as significant lack of adequate parking to support folks coming to the lake — each boat ramp has other unique issues.”

Not present at the meeting were representatives from USACE, whose stated mission is to provide flood damage-reduction to the Guadalupe River Basin below Canyon Lake; manage the natural land and water resources; support the military in times of peace or war; and offer some of the best water-recreation opportunities in Texas.

When asked how that language translates into rules and regulations for boat ramps, UACE Canyon Lake Manager Javier Perez Ortiz referred MyCanyonLake.com to Title 36.

“All state and local laws apply in our lands,” he said.

“The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers owns land below 909 elevation level,” he said in an email. “In other words the public cannot trespass private property to access the 909 level. Also the shoreline is very irregular around the lake. The agency has the right to flow until 948 feet above the sea level. In reality between the 948 and 910 lines belong to the property owner. Crossing those lines will be considered trespassing.”

Commssioners Court meets at 8:30 a.m. Thursdays at 100 Main Plaza, New Braunfels. To review agendas and watch meetings online, visit mycomalcounty.com.

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