Concord — February 25, 2010 — The law imposing speed limits on boaters at Lake Winnipesaukee is set to expire at the end of this year, and a group of legislators is pushing to make it permanent. A bill introduced last month by state Sen. Martha Fuller Clark, along with nine co-sponsors, would eliminate a sunset clause in the law passed in 2008 that set speed limits at the lake of 45 mph during the day and 25 mph at night.
The intent of the sunset clause was to give lawmakers the chance to observe a two-year trial run with the speed limits in place. Afterward, a new law could be passed making them permanent.
State Rep. James Pilliod, the Belmont Republican who introduced the 2008 law, said that his goal was always to make the speed limits permanent and that he only assented to the sunset clause because former representative Jim Ryan, then the chairman of the House Transportation Committee, said it would make the bill more agreeable to his committee.
Pilliod has joined Fuller Clark and Lakes Region legislators from both sides of the aisle in trying to make the speed limits permanent before they are repealed Jan. 1, 2011.
“We’re trying to have a repeal of the repeal,” Pilliod said.
Sandy Helve, president of the Winnipesaukee Family Alliance for Boating Safety, said she does not want boat speed at the lake to go back to being unrestricted at the end of this year while legislators try to get a permanent law passed.
“We don’t want there to be a gap in the coverage of people’s safety on the lake,” she said. “The whole tenor of the lake is vastly different when you have a speed limit.”
Opponents of the bill say its proponents are acting prematurely.
“This is basically a ploy to ram through legislation without the data to support it,” said Scott Verdonck, president of opposition group Safe Boaters of New Hampshire. “We’re not saying we don’t want the speed limits. We want the two-year study that was promised by the Legislature.”
Verdonck, a 33-year-old from Goffstown who said he has vacationed at Winnipesaukee his whole life, said he is opposed to the speed limits in general.
“Obviously it’s just too much government,” he said. “Why are we trying to legislate something that’s not a problem?”
State Rep. Judith Reever, a Laconia Democrat and co-sponsor of the bill, said the speed limits are needed to ensure safety at the lake.
“Its time has come,” Reever said. “This should have happened a long time ago.”
But Sen. Lou D’Allesandro, a Manchester Democrat, said he is against speed limits at the lake because he doesn’t believe they can be adequately enforced and because checking for speeding would take Marine Patrol officers away from other tasks.
“You would think that reasonable boating people know the limits of their craft and observe the rules of the waterway,” he said.
This past summer, the first with the speed limits in place, Marine Patrol issued one ticket and 26 warnings for violating the new speed limits, said Marine Patrol Sgt. Crystal McClain.
Dave Barrett, director of the state division of safety services, which oversees the Marine Patrol, said patrolmen logged 68 hours of stationary radar surveillance. All Marine Patrol officers are trained to use the department’s four speed radars, but enforcing speed limits on the water is more difficult than enforcing them on land because water creates constant motion, Barrett said.
Winnipesaukee is not the only New Hampshire lake with speed limits; at Squam and Spofford lakes, boaters cannot go above 40 mph during the day and 20 mph at night. But Barrett said the speed limits are mostly a non-issue at those lakes because the boats there are typically smaller and less powerful.
Merrill Fay, the president of Fay’s Boat Yard in Gilford who pushed to get the speed limits enacted, said the mere threat of a citation for speeding caused significant change on the lake this summer.
“These people have slowed down. There’s no doubt about it,” he said.
Business was up, he said, because recreational boaters had returned after leaving out of annoyance with zooming powerboats. However, overall boat traffic was down in 2009, a year plagued by nasty weather and a bad economy, Barrett said. Accordingly, complaints decreased across the board, not just with regard to speed, making it difficult to tell how much of an effect the speed limits had.
If lawmakers are “really earnest about being objective,” Barrett said, they should consider extending the sunset clause in the law to allow more time to judge the effect of the speed limits.
“There is insufficient data to support either side of this argument,” he said.
A public hearing on the bill is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. March 11. The deadline for the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee to vote on the bill is March 18.