State moves to limit scullers' use of disputed pond

CRAFTSBURY — The state is proposing to restrict racing shells and sculls on Great Hosmer Pond in Craftsbury, a move critics decry as an unprecedented attempt to favor motorboats over human-powered craft.

The ban would apply between 1 and 4 p.m., and again between 7 p.m. and sunrise, from late May to early September.

There have been conflicts for years on the pond between motorized and nonmotorized watercraft. The pond is used by the nonprofit Craftsbury Outdoor Center, which trains rowers and scullers.

The proposed rule is an attempt to move beyond the stalemate, said Environmental Conservation Commissioner Emily Boedecker.

And it is very much a work in progress — or at least that's her hope, Boedecker said.

"I really want to move the conversation forward, toward talking about solutions," she said. "I want to get to the point where everybody can enjoy this pond again."

"There are many different uses happening on this pond," she said. "There is a very broad spectrum of interest, of comments, of concerns [and] here's one solution I'm putting forward. If there's a different alternative, a better solution out there, please let me know. I'm all ears."

Boedecker must by law seek to balance all "normal" uses on the pond, she said. A 1995 ruling by the Water Resources Board declared powerboating a "normal" use on Great Hosmer Pond, even though by law powerboats may not exceed 5 mph on the overwhelming majority of the pond's surface.

The pond is too small to have separate areas for conflicting normal uses, so having separate times for different uses of the pond is the only viable solution Boedecker came up with, she said.

"Nobody has called me and said, `I like the rule,'" she said. "Everybody has called me and said, `I don't like the rule.'

"If anybody's got a better idea, a better way all these normal uses can coexist, I would love to hear that. I'm very genuine in my desire to hear other solutions."

Chittenden County State's Attorney Sarah George, whose family owns property on the lake, spearheaded the effort to change the rules. She said she is no longer a spokesperson for the situation, and declined to comment for this story.

George has said the push to limit scullers on the lake is a matter of safety, not a dispute between nonmotorized and motorized users of the pond.

Craftsbury resident Kristen Fountain said it's unclear what else could be motivating the proposed rule change.

"I don't know what else it could be," she said. "If not that, what is the use they're trying to allow for?"

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center, a rowing and sculling school on the pond's south end, currently sends groups of up to 30 scullers and rowers up and down the narrow pond sometimes three times a day.

George and others have complained that the nonprofit center has monopolized the pond and made it unusable by other boaters. George said she owns a powerboat in order to water ski.

Water skiing requires speeds of around 20 mph, according to the sport's U.S. governing body, but powerboating at speeds above 5 mph is illegal on almost all of Great Hosmer Pond.

The restrictions Boedecker proposed would apply only to racing shells and rowing sculls, such as those used by the Craftsbury Outdoor Center.

But since the center already voluntarily stays off the pond during the hours of the proposed ban, Fountain said, the rule would affect only private individuals like her who want to scull on the public pond.

Both she and her husband own sculls and regularly use them on Great Hosmer Pond, Fountain said.

Fountain said she's not aware of any public body of water where scullers have been prohibited in order to facilitate powerboating.

She also said that if the state is writing a law to regulate the Craftsbury Outdoor Center's activities, the law should deal with outdoor center alone instead of banning all scullers and rowers from the pond twice each day.

"It's been a very strange process, and it's a strange draft rule. They basically took what the outdoor center's been doing and made that the rule," Fountain said. "The way it is now, the only people who are going to be affected are people like me, who aren't affiliated with the outdoor center."

Further, it's inappropriate for the DEC commissioner to write rules meant to hurt or help a single private entity in the first place, she said.

It's also a bad precedent to set, said Ian Anderson, a former sculling coach at the University of Vermont who now practices rowing and sculling on the Lamoille River near Milton.

"I think there's a potential, of course, that this could set a precedent, that other parties could get people to stop using a pond or a lake that they consider their own," Anderson said. "This could be used as a way of limiting access to anyone."

There's also an economic component to the issue, and it's one the DEC seems to be overlooking, said David Snedeker, executive director of the Northeastern Vermont Development Association.

"The outdoor center is probably one of the largest economic engines in the town of Craftsbury," Snedeker said. "Anything that negatively impacts the outdoor center as a business and as an employer is going to affect the local economy for sure — negatively."

Snedeker said the outdoor center is one of the largest employers in the area.

The DEC is moving forward on the rulemaking process without much good data on who actually uses the pond, Snedeker said.

"If I'm setting a rule, I'd maybe base the rule on usage of the lake, rather than being arbitrary about it and saying, `This user can use it during these hours, and this other user can only use it these hours,'" Snedeker said. "I think this issue of proportionality might be different if they had data."

Plus, Snedeker said, he doesn't know of any instance in the state of Vermont where a public water body has been closed to human-powered boats in favor of motorboaters.

Great Hosmer Pond is currently one of a handful of water bodies of its size in the state that allows motorboating, and motorboats remain legal on the pond only because of an exemption granted in the 1970s.

Because Great Hosmer Pond is so narrow — only 80 feet at its narrowest point — nearly the entire pond falls within a zone extending 200 feet from shore, where the speed limit is 5 mph.

State law normally prohibits motorboats on lakes and ponds with fewer than 30 acres that aren't covered by that 200-foot zone.

Snedeker said the DEC should reconsider the exemption that allows motorboats on Great Hosmer Pond, instead of banning the sculls and racing shells that conflict with them.

The proposed rule has not yet begun the formal rulemaking process, Boedecker said.

It's in a draft form that's open to revisions, and up until the moment it's adopted, Boedecker said, she's willing to suspend the rulemaking process and attempt other approaches.

The DEC is accepting public comment on the proposed rule.

Once other agencies have the opportunity to vet the proposal and to see whether the DEC is the right agency to propose it, Boedecker said, she'll submit it to the secretary of state to begin the actual rulemaking process.

There'll be a 30-day public comment period after that. The proposed rule would then go before the Legislative Committee on Administrative Rules, a body of eight legislators who would review it to ensure it lines up with state law.

If she's able to begin the formal rulemaking process near the beginning of next month, the rule could be in effect by the end of the year, Boedecker said.


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