City halts disabled water skiing on Virginia Beach lake

Rachelle Chapman, 31, is paralyzed from her chest down after a 2010 accident injured her spine. In 2016, she was able to water ski by herself for the first time since the accident by participating in an event held by Virginia Beach Adaptive Watersports. (Courtesy Carol Friedman)

VIRGINIA BEACH — When Rachelle Chapman became paralyzed she thought she’d never be able to enjoy water sports again.

The now 31-year-old mother became internationally known as the “paralyzed bride” in 2010 after one of her bridesmaids pushed her head first into a pool during her bachelorette party. The impact injured Chapman’s spine, paralyzing her from the chest down.

Activities that were once commonplace for the Virginia Beach native, like wakeboarding, became impossible as Chapman learned to cope with her disability.

But in 2016, she and her mother, Carol Friedman, discovered Virginia Beach Adaptive Watersports, a nonprofit organization that helps disabled people water ski on Witchduck Lake.

“It was awesome,” Chapman said of her time water skiing. “It almost feels like you’re not disabled.”

Chapman is just one of 211 disabled people who enjoyed the water this summer with VBAW; however, 2017 may be the organization’s last season on Witchduck Lake as its operations are in jeopardy due to a mandate made by the city of Virginia Beach.

On Sept. 12, the city issued three misdemeanor court summonses to 64-year-old Dallas Norman, one of the founding members of VBAW. Norman owns land in the area and says he has spent recreational time on Witchduck Lake since 1988 without issue.

Norman is accused of hosting unpermitted recreational activities on the lake, running a non-commercial marina and having an accessory structure without principal on Aug. 19. He is scheduled to appear in Virginia Beach General District Court on Oct. 10.

Norman said he’s confused by the accusations the city has charged him with because he’s been hosting VBAW and USO of Hampton Roads and Central Virginia events for the disabled on the lake for several years.

He thinks his problems began earlier this year when he attempted to apply for a conditional use permit to host a day camp for disabled children at the lake. When he attempted to get surrounding residents to support the camp, some signed a petition against it, Norman said.

Through conversations with the city’s zoning department, Norman said he realized the regulations he’d have to meet in order to have the day camp — like building a parking lot — would be too costly, so he decided to forgo the expansion and focus on his regularly scheduled VBAW activities.

In May, around the same time the water skiing season was to begin, the city’s zoning administrator told Norman he’d have to file for a conditional use permit in order to continue hosting VBAW activities on the lake, city spokeswoman Julie Hill wrote in an email.

People applying for conditional use permits must present their ideas and projects to the city’s planning commission; in turn, the planning commission decides whether or not to allow those people to move forward.

Norman was also told that he could appeal the necessity of a conditional use permit with the city’s boarding of zoning appeals, Hill said. That hearing was set for Sept. 6, but Norman said that after chatting with his lawyer he decided to withdraw his appeal in the hopes that he could bring the issue before a judge instead.

“He had the right to appeal, which he filed but then withdrew,” Hill wrote. “Because Mr. Norman did not go through with the hearing and did not cease the unpermitted activities, the summonses were issued.”

Despite not having a conditional use permit, Norman hosted the VBAW water skiers throughout the summer, as well as a three-day event for military members and their families. He did not, however, realize that by going against the city’s decision he would face misdemeanor allegations that could cost him thousands of dollars.

According to the Virginia Beach Police Department, the misdemeanor summonses are zoning violations — not criminal offenses.

“It puts a lump in my throat to tell you the truth,” Norman said of the accusations. “I thought I was doing the right thing. I know we were doing a good thing.”

Despite the complicated situation he’s facing, Norman said that he feels drawn to use Witchduck Lake to benefit the disabled.

“It’s a community thing,” he said.

Norman said he remembers the first time Chapman was able to water ski. He and his team of volunteers outfitted her in a sit ski, and because she is paralyzed from the chest down she still has some strength in the muscles that connect to the back of her hands and was able to use them to control the ski.

As the boat started, volunteer water skiers helped lift Chapman out of the water. As they gained speed, they let Chapman go and she began water skiing by herself.

Later that day, she and her mother were able to relax in the water together on a tube for the first time in at least six years.

Friedman said she’s upset by the idea that VBAW may no longer be able to help the disabled water ski at Witchduck Lake. She’s also upset that Norman, who didn’t charge anyone to participate, is in trouble.

“He provided a service for people who love the water to get back on it,” Friedman said. “We were able to have our old lives together for a little while.”

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Adrienne Mayfield is an award-winning, multi-media journalist hailing from Clermont, Fla. She moved to Lynchburg, Va. on a whim when she was 19, and worked her way to Hampton Roads in 2013. Adrienne is passionate about telling people stories via covering public safety and the judicial system. She isn’t afraid to take a heads-on approach to covering crime, including knocking on doors to get the details police aren’t sharing. Adrienne is a 2014 Old Dominion University graduate who still lives within walking distance of the college. You may see her cruising around Downtown Norfolk on her bike, enjoying a sandwich from Grilled Cheese Bistro or playing fetch with her dog, Greta, at the Colonial Place dog park.