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Berlin Officials Oppose Banning Recreation from Berlin Pond; Seek to Reclaim Land Rights

by Carla Occaso
The Berlin Selectboard voted on May 5 to oppose a petition seeking to completely forbid recreational use of Berlin Pond’s surface water. They also voted to remove “No Trespassing” signs, and, in a third action item on the list, they voted to further investigate old property boundaries with the belief that the town of Berlin owns a strip of land between the water and land that’s owned by the city of Montpelier on the north side of the pond.
The petition, filed this winter by The Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond requesting to keep human activity off the water, seeks to protect the only drinking water source to the city of Montpelier and most of Berlin. Berlin Pond supplies drinking water to about 9,000 users, and water is filtered at a filtration plant. After filtering, chlorine is added to deaden microorganisms.
Until May 2012, the city of Montpelier has actively kept up ordinances keeping people away from the water since 1884 by purchasing most of the land around the pond and exercising its own authority and using its own police force. However, five years ago two individuals challenged the city’s authority to prevent people from using bodies of water by kayaking on the pond. This led to arrests and court action.
The kayakers ultimately successfully argued a body of water as large as Berlin Pond is governed by the state and that the city of Montpelier does not own it and cannot control what happens on the pond. But plenty of others, including The Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond and the Montpelier’s City Council disagree. Another hearing on the petition will be held Tuesday, May 27 at the Berlin Elementary School, hosted by The Vermont Agency of Natural Resources Department of Environmental Conservation. The agency is currently asking for public comment and can be reached by e-mail at Laura.Woods@state.vt.us, according to a public notice issued recently.
Most Berlin officials are happy about the freedom to use the pond, according to Ture Nelson, chair of the Berlin Selectboard. A complete ban on recreational use of Berlin Pond is too strict, Nelson said on May 8. He said he and a majority of the board feel that it is possible to protect wildlife and water quality while allowing boating and fishing. “From what we’ve seen, both sides can co-exist,” Nelson said. “For the past two years, fishermen have had access to the pond and we have not seen a negative impact on wildlife. There has been no contamination of the water. We’re talking a couple of kayakers, a couple of canoeists and a few people fishing from the side of the road.”
However, Montpelier’s City Council voted in April to authorize City Manager William Fraser to write a letter in support of the petition. Other city officials don’t like allowing swimming in the drinking water, either. “I don’t support the notion that we need to allow recreational activity on every body of water in Vermont. Berlin Pond is a unique ecological resource that is likely to be degraded by the increase in human activity,” stated Montpelier Mayor John Hollar in an e-mail to The Bridge.
And, it is possible to see both sides of the argument. Andrea Chandler, a member of the Berlin Conservation Commission, said she can see why people would want to enjoy the water, but that seeking to protect it is also reasonable. “Every year the demand for more recreational opportunities escalates and that puts more pressure on our natural resources. I feel that leaving a few areas (and one that doubles as a water supply would seem a logical choice) free from recreational activity would preserve a unique resource. I understand the reasons why people would love to recreate on Berlin Pond, but I also understand why leaving a few places undisturbed is also important,” Chandler wrote in an e-mail.
Also apparently seeking a bit of middle ground, the city of Montpelier filed a request for a rules change, which could protect the drinking water, but also serves as more of a compromise than a complete ban on public use. The current rules allow fishing, swimming and non-motorized boating. The proposed change in rules would further ban motors with internal combustion engines, including tools powered by internal combustion. “Use or presence of petroleum-based fuels” would be prohibited, as would ice shanties. Berlin selectboard members have not taken a position on this request for a rules change, Nelson said, but they are not opposed to it at this point.
The second issue at the May 5meeting was to take down “No Trespassing” signs located on the 85 feet of Berlin-owned shoreland. The area, located by Paine Turnpike, has no parking and is not used much, so the action is more about allowing full access, Nelson said.
As for the third issue addressed by the board, members are seeking to define additional land on the north end, which is owned by Berlin, but has been disused when pond recreation was not allowed. The town is surveying the boundaries and performing deed research. The Department of Fish and Wildlife has agreed to refund the town 50 percent of the expense, Nelson said, who estimates costs at $12,000. Deed research is being performed by attorney Rob Halpert, while surveying is done by Vermont land surveyor Paul Hannan of Plainfield.