State Tries To Defuse Tension Over Craftsbury Outdoor Center's Use Of Pond

Jan 27, 2017

A Northeast Kingdom pond is at the center of a debate over how much a local recreation center can use it if that use prevents others from being on the water.

Now the state is considering establishing new rules to try to settle the dispute.

The Craftsbury Outdoor Center operates year-round, but the summertime rowing sports programs on Great Hosmer Pond have created tension with others using the pond.

Great Hosmer’s long narrow shape and still water make it ideal and popular for sculling.

But Mike George, whose family has had a camp on the pond since the 1940s, says when large groups of the fast-moving craft are rowing on the pond, there isn’t room for others.  

“It’s hard to even kayak or canoe down the lake. It’s virtually impossible, says George. “So if it’s impossible for that, it’s also impossible to have a motorboat on the lake, because of the shape of the lake.”

Motorboats have long been permitted on the pond, along with non-motorized craft, and are sometimes used for water skiing.  According to statute, motorized boats going more than five miles per hour must observe a 200 foot safety zone from the non-motorized vessels and the shoreline. 

For George and others, the key question is what limits should be placed on the pond’s use by a single entity.

"How can an organization or a business control or monopolize or dominate a public body of water?" — Mike George

“How can an organization or a business control or monopolize or dominate a public body of water?” says George.

The outdoor center says it uses the pond for two or three 90-minute sessions on weekdays, with fewer hours on weekend. To accommodate others who use the pond, it takes a break on holidays and some summer weekends. The center’s programs involve as many as 40 or more sculls on the pond at one time.

In addition, scullers in an Olympic development program based at the center also use the pond.

Mike George’s niece Sarah says that all told, the programs take up about seven-and-a-half hours each weekday. She says the center doesn’t factor in the added time it takes for groups of sculls to get on and off the water, which can amount to 40 to 60 minutes for each session.

She says the fact that scullers row with their backs to oncoming traffic also makes it difficult for them to avoid other boats.

George was on a task force that met last year to try to resolve the conflict. She says the two sides couldn’t reach an agreement.  

“We really just wanted those numbers cut down so it’s not taking over the entire lake,” she says.

Judy Geer, one of the outdoor center’s directors, says the center has been responsive to the complaints.

"[In 2008], we started cutting back weekends and tightening up our hours." — Judy Geer, Craftsbury Outdoor Center

“The center became a nonprofit in 2008, and we wanted to improve things on the lake. So we started cutting back weekends and tightening up our hours and really trying to cut back,” says Geer.

In her view, the current arrangement works and the issue is enforcing the statute governing the operation of motorboats.

"Sculls are a very efficient use of the lake," Geer says. "There's quite a few of them out there at one time, but they follow a traffic pattern, unlike other kinds of boats. They go up one side and come down the other."

However, the state says the situation has reached the point where it’s considering making new rules to resolve the dispute.

“There’s been an escalation in the tensions on the pond. It seems to be correlated with the increase of the number of scullers using the pond,” says Perry Thomas, director of the Lakes and Ponds Program at the Department of Environmental Conservation. “We’re still watching and listening to determine exactly what are the causes and how we might be of assistance in resolving the situation.”

"We're still watching and listening to determine... how we might be of assistance in resolving the situation." — Perry Thomas, Department of Environmental Conservation

Thomas and other officials held a meeting in Craftsbury this month to see whether rules could be created to better manage the use of the pond.

Among those who spoke was Anna Schultz, who works for the outdoor center.

She said the income from sculling programs helps the local economy and supports children’s programs at the center. 

“Limiting sculling camps takes away income that does so much for so many in our community, and I’d just encourage you to think of what that actually means in terms of real dollars and where they’re going,” Schultz told the crowd.

When he spoke, Ben Moffatt acknowledged that people spend a lot of  money at the outdoor center, but he says it shouldn’t take money for him to be able to use the pond. 

“That’s money that I don’t have to come and use my body of water that I own as fisherman, as a taxpayer, as a registration payer on my boat. As I see it that is the issue at hand and we have to regulate how we allow our bodies of water to be used in the state of Vermont. What we have here is a case that could set precedent for any body of water,” said Moffatt.

After the meeting, Don Hawkins, whose camp is the oldest on the pond and is closest to the outdoor center, said he’s not trying to push the center off the pond, only establish a better  arrangement.

“From before daylight to after dark, constant turmoil, noise. We try to be good neighbors. We just want more cooperation, more understanding,” Hawkins said.

Geer says cutting the hours will hurt the center and the local economy.

“Given we’ve already cut quite a bit, we’d like to not cut anymore — because it’s not coming out of our pockets, its coming out of the community’s pockets,” she says. "The fact that we've already cut what we've cut is cutting several hundred thousand dollars a year."

Sarah George says she values the center’s contribution to the community, but to her, it’s a question of fairness, not a choice between the center's children's programs and its economic contribution or greater access to the pond. 

At the meeting, the state rolled out a sample proposal that would dictate when sculls could be on the pond. But the wording of the proposal left blank the hours the center could operate on the pond.

It also sought to address using motorized boats at higher speeds and suggested that water skiing would be limited to certain unspecified hours, or to when other boats were not on the water.

If the state chooses to issue new rules, filling in those blanks to everyone’s satisfaction will be a challenge.

This story was modified on Sunday 1/29/2017 to include state rules regarding motorized vessels and indicate that the state's sample proposal also addresses limiting hours of operation of motorized vessels for water skiing.