Published June 6, 2012 in the Times Argus
Small progress on Berlin Pond
BERLIN — The post-court battle over Berlin Pond was joined this week as those who support reasonable recreational access to Montpelier’s drinking water supply took issue with those who argue that would be a tragic mistake.
The discussion spanned more than two hours, featured plenty of passion on both sides, as well as an interesting offer from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. However, when it was over Monday night the only thing that was crystal clear is the next time the Select Board wants to talk about the pond it had better book a bigger room.
If board members needed any evidence that pond politics is murky business they got it from a standing-room-only crowd that peppered them with questions, opinions and advice in the wake of a Vermont Supreme Court ruling that struck down a prohibition on recreational use of the pond that had stood unchallenged for more than a century.
Heading into Monday’s meeting the board — a small, but important player in a much larger debate over use of the pond — was faced with a single question. Should it post “No Trespassing” signs on a tiny parcel of land that was deeded to Berlin by a town resident Mildred Hayden back in 1954?
Residents interested in a definitive answer to that question left disappointed, and board members agreed to take it up when they meet in two weeks.
On Monday the board just listened …
… And listened …
… And listened.
And if Chairman Brad Towne hadn’t called an end to the discussion there’s no telling how long folks with diametrically opposed views would have kept on talking.
It was that kind of night, and it began with Mike Wichrowski informing board members that the state Department of Fish and Wildlife stood “… ready, willing and able” to assist them in developing a public access to the pond on town-owned land that is located on Paine Turnpike South.
“I think all options are on the table for us to work with the town and come up with a(n) access plan,” Wichrowski said, noting that the department has made a similar offer to Montpelier, which owns and has posted most of the rest of the land surrounding the pond.
The state’s offer to invest in developing and maintaining an appropriately sized public access to the pond was greeted with predictably mixed reviews. Some maintained it would clear up any confusion — and there is still a good bit of it — over how to legally get to a pond that Wichrowski described as “a valuable public resource.” Others worried opening that door would have a detrimental effect on what one characterized as “… a pure, unspoiled resource.”
On a night when the board heard from armchair experts on everything from milfoil and zebra mussels to the Vermont Constitution and the Public Trust Doctrine, Wichrowski sought to dispel concerns that those with fishing poles, kayaks and canoes would, or could, destroy what he conceded was something of a rarity in Vermont — a pond that isn’t ringed by camps and other seasonal dwellings.
“It (Berlin Pond) is unique,” Wichrowski said, echoing sentiments expressed by those who spoke passionately about the pond’s value as habitat for birds and other wildlife.
“All we’re talking about is providing a little point of entry for a few people to go out and enjoy that,” he added.
And, that’s where Wichrowski took issue with some of the bleaker forecasts advanced by those who said they feared even limited public use of the pond would keep loons from nesting and spoil what many view as a special wildlife sanctuary.
“The wildlife in Berlin Pond are disturbed beyond belief, you can hear it right now — it’s called I-89,” he said.
The board got a much different opinion from Tom Willard and other members of the town’s conservation commission, who suggested the pond was an important resource that should be preserved and protected at all costs — at least until Montpelier decides how to respond to the Supreme Court’s recent ruling.
“It just seems to be a little premature to talk about access issues when the regulatory process isn’t concluded,” Willard said.
Northfield resident Hank Buermann disagreed, suggesting it didn’t much matter what residents on either side of the issue thought.
“Every argument I’ve heard here tonight has to do whether or not people ought to have access to the water. That question has been decided,” he said. “The question is whether Berlin wants to restrict access of its own residents and other people … to that water thereby circumventing what the (Supreme) Court has decided.”
Several residents noted they’d found what they believed was a legal way to gain access to the pond and sought some assurance from town officials that they weren’t breaking any rules by stepping off Mirror Lake Road into the public right of way that overlaps the pond.
One man said he’d recently put in his kayak on in the right of way off Mirror Lake Road, paddled from the south end to the north end of the pond and back again and “… caught the biggest bass I ever caught.”
“Did I break any law doing this?” he asked.
“Absolutely not,” Wichrowski said. “It (the pond) is a public resource.”
Towne agreed, provided the man parked his vehicle in a way that didn’t impede traffic.
However, some residents urged the board to accept the state’s offer to develop a modest access area that would be safer, and provide an opportunity to install an informational kiosk. That, they argued, would reduce pressure on the fragile bird habitat located at the south end of the pond and prevent people from coming up with creative and potentially dangerous ways to get on the pond.
“I think we need to provide safe, limited, controlled access,” one woman said.
Others, like Phil Gentile, argued there are plenty of other places in central Vermont to swim and boat and fish and there was some value to preserving Berlin Pond. At a minimum, they urged the board to proceed with caution.
“I think we should give it time … before we go charging into opening up such a natural habitat with reflection (and) without science to back the decision you make,” said Gentile, who serves on the conservation committee and whose home overlooks the pond.
Gentile’s view was shared by several residents who said they saw no good reason to open Berlin Pond to recreational use.
“It is as relevant to say: ‘Leave it alone,’ as it is to say: ‘Use it,’” one woman said.
Some worried about trash and others argued the shift in use allowed by the court’s recent decision would alter the character of the place where they recreate.
“If it becomes a fishing and a boating place where do the people that use it now go?” one woman asked.
“We all play together,” replied Barre resident Rick Barnett, one of the men responsible for challenging Montpelier’s right to regulate the pond.
Buermann said Montpelier miscalculated when it filed a civil lawsuit against Barnett and Barre Town residents Cedric and Leslie Sanborn, who were arrested for kayaking on the pond back in 2009.
“They (Montpelier) chose to make this a court issue, they lost, and now they’re asking you to be complicit in their own mishandling of this situation,” he told the board.
Board members acknowledged competing interests, but made no commitments.
Towne said he had “mixed feelings” about the issue, but was interested in exploring the state’s offer to develop a public access. Even if the board is willing, he said, it is unlikely that work would be completed this year.