Concord — February 25, 2006 — Although a bill to impose speed limits of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night on the state’s lakes and rivers passed the House by a substantial margin three weeks ago, supporters and opponents showed up in large numbers yesterday for a fight neither side considers finished.
Residents, lobbyists and lawmakers who support the bill told the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee during a public hearing that a speed limit is the best way to restore safety to lakes they say are dangerous because of too many fast boats.
“We’re concerned not only about our safety and our family’s safety, but your safety and your family’s safety and everybody in this room’s safety,” said William Bertholdt of Gilford.
Voters and officials against a speed limit said there are better ways to create safer lakes.
“We need to continue with the education process, and we need to enforce the regulations that we have,” said Bruce Wright, the vice president and general manager of Irwin Marine, which has three locations around Lake Winnipesaukee and one in Litchfield.
The speed limit might even be dangerous in some situations, opponents said. Brenda Barelle of Nashua, who drives a 25-foot Baja on Winnipesaukee, said her boat doesn’t plane at 25 mph, meaning the back of the boat sits too low in the water and creates a bigger wake than it should.
“The tip of my boat is so far out of the water, I can’t see over it to drive,” she said. “To see over the dashboard of my boat, it’s about 35 mph.”
Thirty people spoke at the hearing; others signed up to speak but didn’t get a chance before the three-hour session closed, even though the senators extended it an extra 20 minutes.
Many of those who did speak acknowledged that there is a problem with boat traffic on the lakes -specifically on Winnipesaukee, the state’s largest lake, which was the only body of water the bill mentioned before a House committee amended it. As in earlier hearings and public meetings, the point of disagreement was what the problem was and what to do about it. Aside from blaming speed, some people said boaters weren’t educated enough. Some said there were just too many boats on the lake.
Both sides agreed that boaters often violate the safe passage law, which dictates that any boat within 150 feet of another boat, swimmer, float or the shore must travel at a speed that produces no wake. Supporters of the speed limit said the limit would be more enforceable. Opponents said better enforcement of the safe passage law would make the lake far safer than a speed limit, which they countered was impossible to enforce.
“We’re undermanned in Marine Patrol. That’s the problem,” said Glen Bootland of Nashua, a member of the New Hampshire B.A.S.S. Federation.
The Radar Issue
Radar, and whether the Marine Patrol would be able to use it, arose as a point of debate yesterday. Craig Wiggin, a retired law enforcement officer and the New England District Manager for the radar-gun maker Kustom Signals, says his company makes equipment that will read speed accurately on the water. David Hoyt, also a longtime law enforcement officer and the police chief of Newport, which sits on Lake Sunapee, said radar can work on a lake or river, but only in ideal situations. He said he gave up after trying to use it on water and getting inaccurate readings.
Marina owners have found themselves on both sides of the debate, and several spoke yesterday. Merrill Fay, who owns Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford and is one of the bill’s original supporters, said he was worried about what would happen to his business if the speeding on the lake got worse.
“I get calls from people who say, ‘I only want to rent a slip from you during the week. I’m scared to go out on the weekend,'” said.
But some other marina, resort and restaurant owners worry the bill will drive loyal customers to other waters.
“The common theme is that this will be a negative impact to their industry,” said Custie Crampton, a Merrimack resident and a member of the New Hampshire Recreational Boaters Association, which opposes the bill.
Concerns For Children
Speed is one of the things that makes the current system on the lake dangerous for children, said Bob Strodel, the executive director of Camp Brookwoods and Camp Deer Run in Alton. Strodel said he has had to limit campers’ water-skiing to weekdays and restrict the areas they can kayak because of speeding boats. The camp also no longer takes kids across the lake by boat to see nighttime fireworks or allows children to take small boats to an island it owns 300 feet from shore.
Speed also hurts wildlife, said Harry Vogel, the executive director of the Loon Preservation Committee. It’s harder for loons to swim out of the way of a fast-moving boat, and loons on Winnipesaukee have declined from a historic average of 30 to 40 pairs to 16 pairs. Pairs of loons on the lake produce an average of .4 chicks a year, 19 percent below the state average, and the overall state loon population has dropped 7 percent since 2000, he said.
“This is highly statistically significant,” he said. “It’s biologically significant, and it’s unprecedented here.”
The bill made it out of the House Resources, Recreation and Development committee by a vote of 12 to 11, and some opponents of the speed limit urged adoption of the committee’s minority report, which advocated requiring a “reasonable and prudent” speed on lakes and rivers without setting a limit defined by numbers. The House passed the bill by a margin of 193 to 139. Rep. John Gibson, a Merrimack Republican who was in the minority on the House committee report, urged the senators to adopt that version, saying its authors were more knowledgeable.
“Every person that signed that minority report had a safe boater’s certificate,” he said. “Not too many people on the majority report had a safe boater’s certificate.”
The Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee will make a recommendation on the bill to the full Senate, which will then take up the matter.
At the close of the hearing, committee chairman Sen. Bob Letourneau, a Derry Republican, urged the audience to keep tabs on several other water safety-related bills that are making their way through the House and will be in the Senate soon.