Moultonboro — June 30, 2005 — No picketers. No handmade signs. No angry voices. Aside from the parking lot full of pickup trucks and sports cars, you’d almost never know nearly 300 people turned out last night to debate a proposed speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee.
The issue has been contentious from the first: Some folks are tired of powerboats tearing through the lake at what they call dangerous speeds, scaring wildlife and children. Opponents said enforcement of existing laws is what’s needed. A speed limit won’t promote safety, but will add another headache for overworked state Marine Patrol officers, they said.
A legislative committee held last night’s meeting, the first of three this summer, to gauge public input. As written, the law would require boats to keep their speed at 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night. Committee members won’t start work sessions on the bill until the fall, before making a recommendation to the full House.
Last night, 65 people signed up to speak before the 11 p.m. cutoff. But as the meeting reached the halfway mark, only 16 had been called to the mic. It’s unclear if lawmakers will ask those still on the list to come to another session. Of those who spoke, nine were in favor of the bill, while seven opposed it.
Mary Hutchins of Laconia, who supports the measure, said she’s lived on the lake for 26 years. Of the five boats she owns, four of them -including a canoe and row boat -cannot safely navigate Winnipesaukee waters, she said. “It’s like taking a tricycle out on (Interstate) 93,” she said. “You can’t do it. And it’s depriving families from using the lake.”
The first time lawmakers heard of a speed limit for the state’s largest – and most heavily used -lake was about 15 years ago. The measure passed the House, but failed in the Senate, according to the owner of Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford. In 2002, a first-term Republican from Wolfeboro brought forward a nighttime 25 mph limit. Rep. Paul Hatch, who died last May, proposed the limit for a half-hour before dusk to a half-hour after dawn. The idea was trounced almost as soon as he mentioned it.
But supporters of the bill now on the table use the same arguments as Hatch: They’ve watched the lake get more crowded – and dangerous – during their decades of lakefront vacationing. The speed limit would help protect smaller and slower craft and swimmers, supporters say.
And they point to similar laws already in place for Squam Lake, and Lake George in New York. Thirty-three other New Hampshire lakes, of 976, already have speed limits, according to the state Department of Safety Web site. Some of those limits are lake-wide. For example, boats on Squam Lake have to go slower than 40 mph during the day and 20 mph at night. Other lakes have limits from 6 mph to 10 mph in some areas. Most apply around the clock.
But opponents point out that boaters also have to slow down to headway speed (about 5 miles per hour) within 150 feet of shore. These “no-wake zones” help prevent erosion and accidents in narrow channels and congested areas. In some parts of Winnipesaukee, including Meredith Bay, the no-wake zone is extended to cover an entire cove or harbor.
“You’re going to hear a lot of horrific stories tonight,” said Chip Baron, a Manchester resident and president of the New Hampshire Recreational Boaters Association. “The problem is not that laws don’t exist. It’s a lack of enforcement. We need to increase the funding for Marine Patrol and give them more support.”
Baron also said no evidence supports the claim that a speed limit would save lives. The state’s boater education program, which requires all boaters to pass a state-run course or the equivalent by 2008, is also working, he said: In 1999, the state saw 109 accidents, six of which were fatal. Last year, the figures dropped to 55 accidents; two of which were fatal.
“Marine Patrol can stop anyone right now for careless or reckless operation – at any speed. They don’t need a radar gun,” said Dick Smith of Hancock, who is also a representative of the state’s Bass Federation.
But some said powerboat speed – allowed on most of the lake’s 72 square miles – has become more an issue of fear than enforcement.
“My neighbors and I are afraid to go on the lake on weekends,”said Martha Jane Peck, a resident of Alton Bay for 16 years. “It’s just not safe – nor is it fair. Race cars are built to be used on race tracks, not Main Street. High-speed boats belong in the ocean.”
Other hearings are scheduled for July 6 at Kingswood Regional High School in Wolfeboro and July 13 at Gilford High School. Both will be held at 7 p.m.