Ossipee — September 20, 2005 — Keeping the pressure on state and local officials to reject plans for a public beach on Ossipee Lake, a lakeside homeowners’ group wrote the state’s top development official that a beach at Long Sands is “not in the best interest of the lake or the people of the state.”
In a harshly critical letter to Department of Resources and Economic Development (DRED) Commissioner Sean O’Kane, Ossipee Lake Alliance Director David Smith said O’Kane’s agency has failed to establish a need for the beach and has ignored its own 1999 ruling that the environmentally-sensitive property is unsuitable for recreation.
“Ossipee’s selectmen want to move their town beach from one location to another,” Smith said. “Turning a state-owned natural area into a town-managed public beach must be held to a higher needs standard than that.”
State officials said O’Kane will make the final decision, possibly in a year or two, on Ossipee’s request to build its beach on the state land.
The Alliance and the town have been on opposite ends of the town’s struggle to lease the undeveloped lot from the state of New Hampshire. Selectman Harry Merrow has spearheaded a town effort to design a walkway to the waterfront over reportedly rare plants and unknown quantities of Indian artifacts.
By state mandate, Ossipee must first fund several environmental studies to identify and determine the extent of protected features on the wild lot. If O’Kane finds the resulting walkway and management plans suit the state’s preservationist aims, Ossipee will be allowed to build.
If O’Kane says no, as Department of Resources and Economic Development already did once to Ossipee in 1999, according to Smith, the town could have wasted thousands of dollars and still have no beach access to its largest lake.
Smith says Ossipee’s existing public recreation land and swimming areas are plentiful, and building a new one at Long Sands is not worth the risk.
“There already is abundant public recreation in the area including White Lake State Park, a 140-acre property that DRED manages on the Ossipee-Tamworth town line. In addition, Ossipee has four town-designated swimming areas, including a town beach on Duncan Lake that has bathrooms and a lifeguard,” Smith said in a press release. “The selectmen have conceded that the town beach is not fully utilized by residents.”
And, Smith said, Department of Resources and Economic Development has failed to protect its Long Sands lot from reportedly years of abundant use by boaters who dock nearby.
“The Alliance has also asked DRED to explain why it has not acted on its own studies recommending that a restoration and protection plan be created for the property, which is being damaged by hundreds of boaters who recreate there,” Smith wrote.
Merrow recently said he sent a copy of an aerial photo taken on Labor Day weekend by a press photographer of the lot’s sandy waterfront. He said hundreds of boats already dock regularly near the property, and hundreds have used its beach area for decades.
Merrow has asked with some frustration why the Alliance wants to keep the rest of the townspeople — who pledged their support by appropriating $20,000 in beach-building money this year — from swimming in the lake.
He has said he’s sure studies will prove rare plants won’t be damaged, and promised that the town will abandon the project if significant archaeological artifacts are turned up. But if they aren’t, and the town meets strict state requirements, what’s the problem, he asks. “I really don’t see how anybody could want to keep the people of this town off that beach,” he said.
Smith says Department of Resources and Economic Development already found serious problems, but this time opted to work with Merrow on ways around them.
“DRED studies in 1994 and 2003 documented the problems,” Smith said, “but the agency has never acted on its staff’s recommendations. Instead, DRED officials have spent the better part of a year working with Mr. Merrow to bring more people to the site.”
State officials over the summer visited Ossipee and told residents at a public hearing that Department of Resources and Economic Development was committed to helping the town build the beach. The agency fills both preservationist and recreational roles, and said it is obligated to try to open state land to public use, provided plans are environmentally feasible.
No guarantees were offered, but state officials said the agency would help Ossipee in its quest to fund, design and build environmentally-friendly beach access.
But Smith says the wildness of the greater lot serves essential environmental functions that could be jeopardized by any development. He says Department of Resources and Economic Development must reject the beach to protect wetlands critical to the lake’s natural systems and defenses against development.
“The natural area functions as a wetland buffer to the lake’s rapid development and is a haven for native wildlife and unique plant communities. It is an essential part of the character and ecology of the lake. There is no need to develop it, and there is every reason not to,” he concludes his letter to O’Kane.
Smith also criticized O’Kane’s agency for not including various local “stakeholders” in negotiations over the beach — towns like Effingham and Freedom, and other groups with vested interests in the lake.
“DRED’s extensive negotiations on this issue have excluded a majority of the lake’s stake holders,” he wrote. “If the agency believes there is strong support to subdivide this unique wetland to create a recreation zone, that belief is unsubstantiated.”
Ossipee Lake Alliance maintains an online profile of the Natural Area in the Special Places of Ossipee Lake section of its Web site at www.ossipeelake.org.