Berlin Pond: Panel to convene to pinpoint access
BERLIN — A newly formed committee has launched its effort to identify optimal areas for outdoor enthusiasts to get on or near the water of Berlin Pond.
The seven-member committee got off to something of a slow start during its first meeting Thursday, but before it was over participants expressed a shared desire to conduct a swift but thorough analysis of potential access areas and report their findings to the Select Board later this spring.
Committee members are clearly of two minds when it comes to an issue that has been the source of local controversy since the Vermont Supreme Court ruled last May that Montpelier lacked the authority to enforce century-old recreational restrictions on the pond that serves as its public drinking water supply.
That honest difference of opinion surfaced early on in Thursday’s 90-minute session — first when Bob Wernecke was nominated to serve as chairman and again during a brief debate over Wernecke’s interpretation of the committee’s charge.
Over the course of the past nine months Wernecke has been a vocal proponent of finding a reasonable and safe way for those interested in canoeing, kayaking, or fishing on the pond to actually get to the water — a fact that committee member Phil Gentile suggested might make him ill-suited to serve as chairman. Gentile, who lives on the pond, serves on the town’s conservation committee and has been equally vocal on the other side of the issue, wondered whether someone “more neutral” should run the committee’s meetings.
However, Wernecke argued individual “leanings” on the subject shouldn’t enter the conversation because the access question has already been answered by the Vermont Supreme Court, Berlin voters, and most recently the Select Board.
“I don’t think we’re here to debate that issue,” he said.
“We’re here about finding the best way to accomplish this, not whether it should be accomplished,” he added.
Wernecke went on to say that, in his view, the committee’s evaluation should not focus solely on the tiny, town-owned parcel of land that was the subject of a lopsided, non-binding referendum last November.
That assertion provoked some initial push-back from another committee member who lives on the pond and has repeatedly raised concerns involving access to the pond over the past year.
Kathy Hartshorn argued the committee shouldn’t waste its time evaluating other possible access areas, when the vote last November specifically involved the town parcel on Paine Turnpike South.
Members discussed whether to seek clarification from the Select Board, but after reviewing the notice that the board crafted in order to recruit the committee, agreed that wouldn’t be necessary. Though the notice stated the committee would be created as a “...follow-up” to the town vote, the board specifically expressed an interest in having the committee “... review and identify other possible sites for access to the pond as possible alternatives.”
“That’s part of what we’re being asked to do,” Wernecke said.
“It seems pretty clear to me,” committee member Paul Irons agreed.
Once that threshold question was out of the way, Wernecke was elected chairman, Gentile, vice chairman, and committee member Scott Williams volunteered to serve as secretary.
In plotting their next steps, the committee plans to call in two representatives from the state Department of Fish and Wildlife. That could happen as early as next Wednesday, but if scheduling is a problem would likely occur when the committee meets on March 7.
Members aren’t yet sold on the state’s offer to develop a formal access area on the town’s land, which include 82.5 feet of frontage on Paine Turnpike South, roughly 85 feet of shoreline and is estimated to be between 150 and 180 feet deep.
According to Williams, options involving that parcel range from simply stripping down the “Posted” signs that went up last year — “That’s access,” he said — to the “gold standard,” a more formal area for people to park their vehicles and launch their kayaks and canoes.
Although all agreed it would be prudent to pick the state’s brain, Gentile said he was leery of an offer to develop and operate an access area because, he feared, the town would relinquish control and the pond might become more of an attraction than it otherwise would be.
“The greater issue maybe we want to think about is: ‘How big a sign? How is it identified? Is it all over the maps now? Are we going to encourage so many cars to the pond because the... body of water is right between the metropolitan areas for rural (central) Vermont?’” he asked. “We could get a lot of usage if all of a sudden it becomes advertised.”
Gentile predicted that he and other pond residents would look to the town to restrict or prohibit access in areas that are currently being used — most notably along Mirror Lake Road — if an alternative access area is created.
“This is our front yard,” he said, suggesting many of those who live around the pond continue to be concerned by the level of use it has received.
“There are a lot of taxpayers up there that pay a lot of taxes that aren’t necessarily thrilled with the idea of seeing 59 cars (parked) on the road,” he said.
However, Wernecke suggested the “novelty” of being able to get out on a pond that had been off limits for so long would soon wear off and the number of people who use it would drop.
“I sailed it once, I’ll never go back,” he said.
Wernecke said he would like to invite Montpelier to send a representative to the committee’s meetings, if only because the city owns the vast majority of the land around the pond.
“We should offer,” he said. “If they (Montpelier officials) don’t want to participate that’s fine.”
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