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The fast and the furious

Powerboats on Greers Ferry are making waves.

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By any standard, the powerboats featured at the website for the Offshore Super Series racing league are impressive pieces of machinery. The largest and most powerful OSS boats are over 45 feet long, with dual big block engines that can rocket the catamaran-hulled craft across the water at speeds topping 140 miles per hour. Those working to bring the OSS to Arkansas for the Ozark Roar Powerboat Races in April say it will be unlike anything ever seen in the state, an adrenaline-fueled show that will bring tens of thousands of spectators to the shores of sleepy Greers Ferry Lake.

Opponents say that’s just what they’re afraid of.

Thomas Wright is a web marketer who lives on the lake. With the shores of Greers Ferry just 50 feet from his front door and the planned race course just a few hundred yards beyond that, Wright is not happy about the OSS coming to town. He fears the races will bring the very things he moved there to escape: noise, crowds and mounds of trash.

“They [race organizers] tout that there’s going to be between 15,000 and 35,000 people coming to the lake to watch the races directly,” Wright said. “If you come down and you look at where they’re planning on holding the race, where are they going to put these people? This is a protected shoreline. You couldn’t get 1,000 people into the marina at Choctaw where the race starts, much less 30,000.”

Another of Wright’s major complaints is the manner in which the races were announced by both the race committee and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which oversees Greers Ferry Lake. Instead of informing local residents that they had the right to comment before the permit for the races was approved, Wright said that race organizers held what they called an “informational open house,” wording notices in local newspapers so as to “mislead the public into thinking the races were a done deal.”

“One of the things we had a problem with from the start,” Wright said, “is that they just shoved this through quietly without anybody knowing anything about it, not giving those who actually lived here the opportunity to express our opinions about it.”

Signatures gathered

Since the races were announced in February, Wright and his wife, Chyenne, have gathered 1,300 signatures of those opposed to the race. He said that signers had voiced concerns about a number of issues, including eagles that will be nesting along the shore come April, the noise and wake created by the boats, logs and submerged hazards in the water, and the possibility of a chemical spill should one of the boats or OSS-required rescue helicopters crash.

“I don’t think it was very well thought out,” Wright said. “I think it was a whim. I’m not even sure if OSS has even come and looked at this course really well.”

On the other side of the coin is Kitty Gray. A member of both the Greers Ferry and Clinton chambers of commerce, Gray is chair of the committee working to make Ozark Roar a reality. Gray said that while her group was still looking for top-level sponsors [anyone interested in sponsoring the races can call her at (501) 626-4822], the races would bring interest and a much-needed infusion of cash to the towns surrounding the lake. Those opposing the races are in the minority, Gray said, and she calls critics like Wright “closed-minded,” with a “strange, infantile attitude.”

“I don’t really understand the opposition’s take on all of this,” Gray said. “So many of the people who want the races to come next year are a little disappointed and ashamed of how the opposition is acting. … There’s 40-some thousand people who live around this lake, and thousands of them are really thrilled Arkansas was chosen for this race.”

Gray said that if other OSS races were any indication, the Ozark Roar event would give the area an economic boost. “We really haven’t an idea of exactly how many spectators it will draw, but I can tell you that with a similar venue in Lake Pickwick, Tennessee brought in 20-some thousand people over the course of a weekend. There was a $10 million economic impact on that country for that week. That’s a pretty amazing figure.”

This boat race fits in’

P.J. Spaul is the spokesperson for the Corps of Engineers Little Rock district. He said that the Corps carefully considered the environmental impact the race might have on the lake. That consideration is reflected in the permit, Spaul said, by seven additional pages of restrictions and requirements that must be met before and after the race — everything from a 90-decibel sound limit in the viewing areas to additional portable toilets to an extended buffer zone around the places where eagles are known to nest. Spaul said the permit also stipulates that the sponsors of the race will pay for additional rangers and safety personnel the weekend of the race and will pay for cleanup and any damage afterwards.

As for complaints about the lack of public notice before the permit was granted, Spaul said that because the races were less than four days in duration, the Corps issued promoters a “special event” permit — the same kind that might be issued for a fireworks display or a bass tournament. Though public comments did figure into the decision to grant the permit, Spaul said, a special event permit usually doesn’t require a public comment period or a public hearing before it is granted.

“We don’t do public interest reviews for fireworks displays or the cardboard boat races that draw several thousand people to the lake every year,” he said. “I don’t think people want us to start doing that. This boat race fits in, though it’s a bit different. Perhaps that’s what has people concerned.”

Rob Fisher, president of the Arkansas Nature Alliance, is concerned that the races will bring more than something new to Greers Ferry Lake. He said that even two days of powerboat racing could have a number of environmental consequences for the lakeshore ecology, with high noise levels disturbing wildlife patterns and frightening away nesting birds. In addition, Fisher said, the races would restrict the rights of other recreational users of the lake.

“Clearly, boat racing on Greers Ferry Lake would have some degree of environmental impact,” Fisher said. “Even the event sponsors acknowledge this impact. On the OSS website in the racers packet, they require a mandatory $75 environmental impact fee from every racer.” Fisher said the existence of this fee obligated the Corps to conduct more research into the boats’ impact on the environment before a permit was issued.

Even with a 90-decibel restriction, Fisher said, the noise levels generated by the boats are a hazard — especially over water, which carries sound waves much better than land. According to the U.S. Department of Labor’s Occupational Safety and Health Organization, at 90 decibels the maximum safe exposure time before hearing loss occurs is four hours. At 110 decibels, the maximum safe exposure time shrinks to 30 minutes.

“Anyone in [the environmental] field would be stripped down and flogged if we made findings that something would not have an effect without conducting a scientific procedure that could be backed up by data,” Fisher said. “The precedent that the Corps is setting by allowing something of this nature to go forward without studying and producing data is dangerous.”

Homeowner Thomas Wright said that he would go along with public opinion if his neighbors wanted the races to happen. The 1,300 signatures on his petition, however, make him think that those throwing rose petals for the OSS might be all wet when it comes to judging public sentiment.

“The thing about it is that I don’t want these things coming to us in an underhanded way,” he said. “I don’t want somebody trying to trick us into doing something we don’t want to do — misleading the public and telling lies. There’s nothing I like less.”

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