Sipping a beer while floating down the Dan River may soon become illegal if a proposed session law comes to fruition.
County Manager Rick Morris presented the idea to the county Board of Commissioners on Monday, saying outlawing the consumption or possession of alcohol on any of the county’s rivers could help to increase tourism, help resolve problems for landowners and help reduce growing litter on the river.
“The environment that a lot of folks have created on the river has been heavily caused by alcohol,” said Morris. “From a tourism standpoint that is not what we would desire and it is becoming a less family friendly environment.”
He said Polk County had dealt with a similar issue in 2005, and noted that their decision to ban alcohol on rivers had resulted in a “tremendously positive effect.”
“It increased business and tourism,” said Morris, “and it provided a better environment for the people using the river.”
Morris said that in order to ban alcohol on the river, the county would have to ask the General Assembly for a special session law.
“Our legislators are perfectly willing to take this law and get it in place, but it would not happen until the short session next year,” he said.
Representatives from the Wildlife Resources Commission and Sheriff Mike Marshall both said they would support such a law.
Marshall pointed out that the law would only impact people traveling on the river and not apply to landowners, or their lessees or guests, if their property is adjacent to the river. The law would also not apply to Belews Lake.
“Property owners still have full rights on their property,” said Marshall. “This law would target the people traveling down the river which is where we get most of our litter from.”
He noted that other problems caused by the consumption of alcohol on the river included complaints about indecent exposure, people being cussed out, and people using private property as a dumping ground.
“We have had many meetings with property owners who were irate about being overrun on their own property,” said Marshall. “In every incident it had to do with a person being intoxicated. This gives us some teeth to deal with people when we are having problems with them. It has my full support.”
He added that it would also help to reduce rude behavior on the river which he has seen drive tourists away.
“The river is big draw for the county,” said Marshall. “But I have seen people pull out and say they are not coming back because they had to deal with people cussing and drinking on the river.”
Wildlife Resources Commission enforcement officer Sgt. Carey Bostic said a recent sting operation on the river highlighted the degree of bad behavior that can happen.
“We had a detail of 10 officers and made 41 arrests in a single day,” he said. “That included three to four cocaine arrests, a lot of marijuana arrests and a lot of underage drinking. We were just 10 people in one little area. If we had had 20 officers we would have made 80 cases.”
Wildlife Resources Commission Officer D.J. Woods said officers see a similar situation anytime they monitor the river.
“I have heard numerous stories of people who are coming from all over the state and when they get out at an extraction point they are baffled at what they have seen and say they will not be coming back,” he said. “There is littering, underage drinking, drunk and disorderly and marijuana. All of this while small children and families are floating down the river. The majority of our issues are concentrated in a particular area between Seven Island Bridge and Moratock Park.”
He added that officers only stop a person when they see a violation of existing law, and do not stop people to inspect coolers without seeing a violation.
The proposed law would make it a Class 3 misdemeanor to possess or consume any alcoholic beverage on the waters of any river in Stokes County or within 50 feet of the banks of any river in Stokes County unless consumed in a licensed venue.
Morris said he had spoken to several business owners who both rented kayaks or tubes and also sold alcohol.
“They are in favor of having this sort of session law in place to help clean up the environment,” said Morris.
Commissioner Leon Inman said getting the law in place would be a good thing for the county.
“Less than a year ago we were talking about how to handle litter on the river,” he said. “If we don’t address this problem we can put up a sign as big as this building and it would not matter. This is a very good corrective step.”
Other commissioners agreed, deciding to set public hearing on the issue for their Sept. 28 meeting in Courtroom A in the county courthouse. The meeting is set to begin at 6 p.m.
Nicholas Elmes may be reached at 336-591-8191 or on Twitter @NicholasElmes.