Plans for kayak event stir Savannah River privacy issues

A permit request for a canoe and kayak festival has raised questions about whether Betty’s Branch along the Savannah River is a public waterway or an exclusive golf club’s private property.

The channel, accessible from Columbia County’s Riverview Park, was part of the course for last year’s inaugural Benderdinker event, which attracted about 400 paddlers.

Festival organizer Kristina Williams received a Georgia Department of Natural Resources permit for the 2012 event, but was advised when she applied for a similar permit this year that Betty’s Branch is the private property of Champions Retreat Golf Course in Evans.

“We were told no permit would be issued without written permission from Champions Retreat,” she said.

Bill Fitzpatrick, the club’s general manager and chief operating officer, initially rejected her request because the April 27 paddling event coincides with a golf tournament the same weekend with 160 players.

Although Williams and the club’s management are attempting to work out a compromise to accommodate both events, the issue of whether Betty’s Branch is private remains under debate.

Capt. Mark Padgett of DNR’s Law Enforcement Section, who advised Williams she must have permission to paddle the area, said his officers advised him the channel is private property.

“A marine event permit is allowed only for waters of the state, and the state of Georgia can’t give people permission to go on other people’s property,” Padgett said.

Betty’s Branch is formed when the Savannah River splits into two channels and flows on either side of Germany Island before merging back into a single channel downstream. Champions Retreat owns much of the island and has built a bridge and golf holes there.

Padgett said he researched Georgia case law that indicates a waterway becomes private property when the same landowner owns both sides of a channel. That criteria, he said, is met with Champions Retreat and an adjacent landowner, Robert Pollard Jr., who owns land on both sides of Betty’s Branch above and below the golf course.

Savannah Riverkeeper, an advocacy group, disagrees.

Betty’s Branch, also known as “Little River,” is simply a part of the Savannah River that flows around an island, and therefore public water, said riverkeeper director Tonya Bonitatibus.

From a federal perspective, the main river channel and Betty’s Branch are both considered navigable waters of the United States, said Billy Birdwell, a spokesman for the Army Corps of Engineers’ Savannah District.

“A determination of navigability, once made, applies laterally over the entire surface of the waterbody,” he said. “Therefore, if Little River is flooded by the ordinary high water of the Savannah River, it would also be considered a navigable water of the U.S.”

He added, however, that state agencies, such as Georgia’s State Property Commission, can regulate issues involving access to or restrictions from certain areas.

The matter is also under study at DNR’s headquarters level by Lt. Col. Jeff Weaver, said Melissa Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Wildlife Resources Division.

“Lt. Col. Weaver said that the first thing to determine is if the property is private property, so he has forwarded the request to the DNR legal offices for review,” she said.

The Benderdinker festival, meanwhile, will still be held April 27 – and will have larger crowds and more sponsors than last year, Williams said.

“We’re trying to promote awareness of some of the wonderful natural resources in this county that aren’t being utilized,” she said. “It’s a good event for the community.”

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