Meredith — September 26, 2006 — Months after the Legislature killed a proposal to put a speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee and other lakes in the state, dozens of people packed the Meredith Community Center yesterday to debate the issue again. Their arguments were the same, but the process was different. Speed limit proponents are hoping the distinction will bring them a different outcome.
Residents from eight towns surrounding New Hampshire’s largest lake have petitioned the Department of Safety to consider a rule setting maximum speeds at 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night. The limit must be approved by Commissioner Dick Flynn and then sent to a committee of legislators that oversees agency rules. It would not be voted on by the full Legislature.
About 60 people signed up to speak at the department’s hearing yesterday. They were split almost evenly in favor of and against the limit. Another 100, also equally divided, signed in and sat in the audience.
Opponents of a speed limit said a limit of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night was “arbitrary,” would take away their rights as boaters and would do little to address unsafe conditions caused by irresponsible boaters and congestion on the lake.
Proponents described the feeling of fear that fast boats create for those in their path and cited a litany of “close calls” with swimmers, canoeists and small craft. They cited an accident this summer in which a boat ran aground at night. The driver was charged with boating while intoxicated, but speed limit advocates said the proposed law would have given a Marine Patrol officer reason to stop him before the crash.
One side argued that the limit would hurt tourism on the lake, while the other said it would help tourism by making slower boaters and paddlers feel safer. Caroline McNerney of Meredith said she traveled around the lake last summer interviewing camp directors about safety on the lake. Many told her they have curtailed water activities on the weekends, when the lake is busiest and the traffic fastest.
“How is it that a small number of people are allowed to limit thousands of children from enjoying the most basic activities of the lake?”McNerney said. “How is it that a small number of people are ensuring that parents of these campers -parents who are paying good money into the New Hampshire economy – are getting less and less for their dollar?”
Weldon Bosworth of Gilford said speed boats designed for the open ocean have a difficult time seeing and reacting to boats in their path, let alone windsurfers like himself. The speed limit is something the public supports, he said.
“This is not a flight of whimsy supported by a few radicals,”Bosworth said.
A poll conducted for the New Hampshire Lakes Association this winter showed that 63 percent of New Hampshire residents support enforcing a speed limit on lakes and streams.
Many against the plan argued that enforcing rules already on the books, including a requirement that boats pass other boats, docks, swimmers or shore by no closer than 150 feet, would be more effective.
“Our Marine Patrol is stretched thin,” said Ben Gamache, president of the New Hampshire Recreational Boaters Association. “We would gain so much more by adding money to their budget for more officers rather than radar guns.”
Several people argued that the real intention of the speed limit was to get rid of a certain kind of boat, those larger than 26 feet long that can travel at high speeds. John Irwin, a third-generation owner of Irwin Marine in Laconia, said that would be an unfair restriction of public waters.
Starting Jan. 1, all boaters must take a boater education exam. Janis Powell of Belmont, who teaches boating, said the program will eventually improve lake safety.
“I think we really need to give education a chance to do its job,”she said.
It’s not clear how long Flynn will take to make a decision on the issue. Proponents of the limit say they have reason to hope that he will rule in their favor. The department approved a speed limit on Squam Lake a few years ago.
Derek Durbin, environmental policy director for the New Hampshire Lakes Association, said 15 groups from other lakes have requested copies of the petition. He said he thinks they are watching to see what happens on Winnipesaukee before trying the same on their waters.