ACCESS DENIED – Today’s Telegram Article

This past spring, I have heard from two statewide groups that public access was their biggest upcoming issue. Check out today’s article appearing from in the Worcester Telegram…

(click on to our post title to bring you to the site directly.)

Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Access denied

Robert J. Kane of Clinton standing at the closed gate access to Wyman Pond in Westminster says he and others are gathering the required signatures for a petition demanding public access to the pond. (T&G Staff/RICK CINCLAIR)

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Hundreds of lakes and ponds on the state’s list of great ponds should be accessible, under law, to the public. But each year state and local governments — or private entities in their own interest — either limit or ban access to one pond or lake after another.

Fishermen who have launched their boats at some great ponds for more than 50 years pull up one day to find a gate across the access road, some accompanied by a sign stating, “For residents only.”

Lake associations of homeowners living on the shore, and sometimes communities themselves, say measures restricting public access were taken for good reasons — to discourage nuisances such as trash and debris left behind or to pay for maintenance and safe management of the water.

Clinton resident and sportsman Robert J. Kane, 50, who has fished on many of the state’s great ponds, fears that if such steps continue, far fewer of the state’s great waters will be accessible to future generations.

“In the next 20 years, we’ll have lost access to another dozen or so at least,” Mr. Kane said.

Many great ponds and lakes in the area, defined by the state as “ponds containing in their natural state more than 10 acres of land,” have restricted public access.

•At Spectacle Pond in Lancaster, the lake association installed a locked gate in 2000 that is opened and closed for two weeks in the spring and fall to allow homeowners on the lake to get their boats in and out of the water. The pond is still stocked by the state, but public access is limited to what can be carried in, making it nearly impossible for fishermen not living on the lake to get motorized boats on the water.

•In 2007, a sign was posted on Bare Hill Pond in Harvard limiting access to the beach area to town residents. The beach had been used by the public for years.

•On Mirror Lake in Devens in 2004, the town put a gate across the public access road, allowing only carry-in access for everyone — a measure taken to restrict partying at the site.

•In 2002, at the town beach on East Waushacum Pond off Swett Hill Road in Sterling, the town started requiring parking permits obtained with proof of residency. The measure effectively keeps out fishermen who had brought in their motorized boats for years. Opponents to the measure say with no parking available for those who do not live in town, fishermen would have to drop off their boats, take their vehicle and trailer home and get someone to bring them back to go fishing.

• In 2002, the state purchased a quarter-acre lot on South Meadow Pond in Clinton that included the public access road to the pond. This year, the state installed a gate, as required by a deed restriction, to block public access. The gate is opened in the spring and fall for homeowners to bring in and remove personal water craft and motorboats. Fishermen, who have launched boats from trailers for more than 50 years, are left outside the gate.

• On Wyman Pond in Westminster, the town said this year it would take control of a locked gate installed by the lake association at the only spot where there is public access and will ask the Police Department for help keeping the public out. Lake association members blame the public for the increase in invasive weeds in the pond — a problem they have paid more than $300,000 over the past five years to control — and for trash left at the site.

Mr. Kane, whose use of South Meadow Pond in Clinton has been blocked because he’s restricted from launching his motorboat on the water, said the intention of state law (Chap. 131, Sec. 45) is that all people should be allowed a reasonable amount of access to great ponds.

“However, the attorney general isn’t using it that way on our behalf. The law says everybody, and the state comes out and restricts access to people that don’t live there — with our tax money,” he said, citing the state-installed gate at South Meadow Pond.

Signs and gates are one way of restricting access. Another is fees, Mr. Kane said, offering as an example the $35 one-time fee charged for access to Webster Lake, the second-largest in the state.The town of Webster says public use entails costs and responsibilities. Fees charged for lake access are set by the Board of Selectmen, said Town Administrator John F. McAuliffe. All money goes to maintain the beach area, he said, which includes additional police patrols, hiring lifeguards, landscaping, salary for a harbor master, and maintenance.

“It’s not for the town to make money,” he said. “There are a lot of costs associated with it.”

Edward D. Himlan, executive director of the Massachusetts Watershed Coalition, which works with communities and municipalities on water and stream protection and restoration, said abutters to great ponds often see the public as a nuisance.

“The problem is that you get a lot of intrusion and folks that will come in and cause problems that are not living there,” he said. “It’s not so much they want to keep it private as it is that they have to deal with a lot of nuisances if it is kept open to the public.”

Abutters also see the spread of invasive aquatic weeds as being caused primarily by the public.

“If you have motorboats on a lake, particularly a shallow lake, you make the situation a whole lot worse,” Mr. Himlan said. “The prop goes through and cuts the weeds into pieces across the lake and it can take root. It creates a situation where the boats are spreading weeds throughout the entire water body.”

Trash left behind by the public is also an issue, he said.

“It can get pretty bad. With people coming to fish and recreate — a whole set of things go along with that oftentimes for people living there, from loud, boisterous foul-mouth teenagers to people leaving dirty diapers, trash and debris on the lake front. It’s not everybody,” he said, “but it only takes a few, and that’s part of the problem with having public access to a water body.”

In 2006, Mr. Kane filed the first citizen’s petition with the state attorney general’s office on the issue in more than 30 years. It’s a fight he began in 2003 when state officials blocked access to South Meadow Pond in Clinton. The second was filed this year by Lee residents over access to Sandy Beach on 150-acre Laurel Lake.

Schweitzer Mauduit International Inc. paper mill, which owned property used by the public to access the Lee beach for more than 80 years, closed down a year ago. The owners sold 3.5 acres that contained the Laurel Lake Dam and access road to the beach to Roger Scheurer, former manager at the mill. Mr. Scheurer changed the locks on the gate and demanded the town pay $10,000 for him to unlock it for the public last summer.

Deidre M. Consolati, a town meeting representative and chairwoman of the Sandy Beach Committee, said the town is still waiting for a ruling from the attorney general’s office on the issue.

“All of a sudden there was a new owner and that was it,” she said. “It still remains unclear to us how someone could take a piece of property and turn away an entire town. The people felt robbed.”

The measure put a private interest ahead of public interest, she said. “This is an important ruling for the people of Massachusetts, because it’s another example of a private interest trumping the public good.”

Harry Pierre, deputy press secretary in the state attorney general’s office, said his office can only do what state law, Chap. 91, Sec. 18A, allows. “That is to seek to establish or protect a means of public access, not expand public access to additional or larger ways/routes that particular petitioners may favor,” he wrote in an e-mail interview.

The state works on behalf of the public when petitions are filed, he added. “We are doing that on Laurel Lake and we did that in Clinton,” he wrote.

Mr. Kane said the attorney general’s office did nothing on his Clinton pond petition, claiming that the deed restriction prevents the state from allowing public access; the state agreed to the deed restriction in the first place, he added.

While acknowledging that public access had been established by continued use over many decades, the attorney general’s office said it could not register an easement across state-owned property.

Mr. Pierre said there are no other recent petitions of which the attorney general’s office is aware.

Mr. Kane said he and others are gathering the required 10 signatures for a citizens’ petition demanding public access to Wyman Pond in Westminster as well as working on possible legislation to protect public access on all great ponds.

“It’s the public’s right that all persons should be allowed a reasonable amount of access to great ponds,” he said. “It’s the law and we’re not going to go away.”