Ossipee — August 10, 2005 — How much will it cost Ossipee taxpayers to pursue a beach in state-owned Ossipee Lake Natural Area?
That was the topic at Monday night’s selectmen’s meeting when a group of Ossipee property owners appeared with a list of questions that elicited a promise by Board Chairman Peter Olkkola that he won’t vote to spend money on the controversial plan until the full costs and risks are known.
The pledge came after the board was unable to answer questions about the beach proposal that ranged from the cost of the required state studies to how the town will handle potential legal challenges.
In addition, there was confusion about the next steps in the process. Asked by Ossipee property owner Bob McDonald where the town plans to locate the beach, Selectman Harry Merrow said he didn’t know because he is waiting for the state to tell him where the rare plants are. After McDonald pointed out that the state told the town in April that it expects Ossipee to initiate and fund the studies to document the plants, Merrow simply reiterated that the ball is in the state’s court.
As for the town’s operating plan, another state requirement, Olkkola said he didn’t think the beach would require much more than a lifeguard. Pressed by Ossipee resident Perry Fine and Ossipee Lake Alliance official Susan Marks about the town’s stewardship responsibilities specified by the state, including police security, trash removal and preventing damage to the fragile habitat, Olkkola and Merrow said the town did not have specific plans or an estimate of costs.
Town Beach Is Underutilized
In response to a question, Olkkola denied that the board planned to close the town’s primary beach on Duncan Lake, saying it is “a lovely beach” that is not used very much. Selectman Joe Skehan echoed the observation, adding that it is never crowded.
Their statements appear to undermine the board’s position with the state that the town needs another swimming area. In addition to the beach on Duncan Lake, which has a lifeguard and bathrooms and hosts the town’s swimming program, the town has designated swimming areas at Mill Pond, White Pond, and Whittier Bridge. Residents also swim at Constitution Park Beach which is on Ossipee Lake.
Asked if the town would consider working with Freedom and Effingham to create a multi-town beach in another location with potentially lower costs for Ossipee, the selectmen dismissed the idea, saying the town needs its own beach without external controls. Asked how that objective is consistent with a beach in the Natural Area that would be owned by the state and have to be open to the general public rather than just Ossipee residents, the selectmen declined to comment.
Fine told the board members that it is imperative to understand the beach plan’s financial risk to the town, adding that the town’s ability to fund discretionary projects will be diminished when the real estate boom ends and tax revenues fall.
When he asked if the town had studied the legal challenges that other towns have faced after leasing state land for predominantly local use, the selectmen said they had not, agreeing that it would be a good idea to do so.
Fine also asked if the town had allocated money to defend itself if legal challenges develop. Merrow said the town had $50,000 in its budget that could be used for legal expenses, but Olkkola disagreed, saying he did not favor using town funds to defend the beach plan in court.
State Officials Questioned
As he has done in past meetings, Merrow again took issue with state officials, especially biologist Lionel Chute. Merrow said Chute gave the town inaccurate figures last month on the Natural Area’s rare plants and globally rare plant communities.
In an e-mail to town officials, Chute listed the plant species that are known to exist on the site and outlined the town’s stewardship responsibility for the Natural Area property if the plan moves forward. He also detailed the type of plant inventory study that the town must commission and pay for.
The state has also told the town it must fund archeological studies of the Natural Area. Asked to comment on the timeline and cost of those studies, Merrow declined but added that he would call off the beach plan if he thought the property had historic value.
“I’m a conservationist at heart, but not a conservationist nut,” he told the group.
Last month, Merrow said he might file legislation to loosen a state confidentiality law designed to prevent vandals and treasure hunters from looting historic sites. He said the move would be so he could release a state report on the Natural Area’s potential historic significance. The Natural Area is thought to be the site of one of the oldest settlements in the area, containing artifacts more than 8,000 years old.
High Costs to Town
State officials have speculated that the required archeological studies alone could cost Ossipee as much as $200,000 and still result in a rejection of its beach proposal. Ossipee resident Ted Hoyt told the board he has first-hand experience with such studies and cautioned that they are very expensive and time-consuming.
The selectmen’s ambition to have a beach in the Natural Area, a property that is overseen by the state agency DRED, was announced in November. At the selectmen’s recommendation, town voters in March authorized the board to seek a land lease for “no more than $100” annually and to spend up to $20,000 in the event a lease agreement is consummated.
Previous Plan Rejected
A previous town proposal for a beach in the Natural Area was studied and rejected by DRED’s then-commissioner George Bald in 1999 because of the fragile environment and the presence of rare plants.
In a letter to the town dated November 11, 1999, Bald said that the property is not “appropriate for a town beach,” adding that “It is apparent that the Natural Area is “one of New Hampshire’s most significant sandy pondshore ecosystems. It must be protected.”