Ossipee — May 2, 2011 — A bill to lower the mean natural high water mark on Ossipee Lake – the line that delineates state ownership – has passed the New Hampshire Senate and is en route to the Governor’s office for signature, according to local legislators. The bill, HB 278, lowers the benchmark from 410 feet above sea level to 407.25 feet. State Representative Mark McConkey, R-Freedom, sponsored the bill with co-sponsors Rep. Harry Merrow, R-Ossipee, Rep. David Babson, R-Ossipee, and State Senator Jeb Bradley, R-Wolfeboro.
The state owns the water bodies in New Hampshire, and sets a mean high water mark to delineate state from private property. The problem with this little known benchmark, set at 410 feet for Ossipee Lake, emerged in 2009 when the NH Department of Environmental Services denied several permits for shorefront property owners to perform maintenance work, such as repairing septic systems. The so-called 410 rule subsequently created confusion over tax liabilities and whether a property owner had the right to sell the property. And in one case, a property owner’s land was entirely under the 410-foot level.
Legislators and others lauded the reset lake level as a victory for common sense.
“This is a terrific outcome to a complex issue,” said David Smith, President of the Ossipee Lake Alliance. “The new benchmark eliminates the confusion and uncertainty that has been hanging over the lake for businesses and residents with low-lying shorefront property. We may never know where the 410 foot benchmark came from, but after a year of research the 407.25 foot benchmark had logic on its side. A consensus developed around it pretty quickly,” said Smith.
Smith credited local and state officials for addressing the lake level problem.
“We’re impressed by how our elected officials at the state and town level handled the situation. They came to our two forums, listened to the lake community, and then pushed hard for a resolution. They deserve the credit for the outcome,” he said.
Rep. McConkey said he’s following the legislation through to the end.
“It will take a little bit of time. It has to go back to the House Speaker for signature then to the Attorney General’s office for review. I’ll be tracing it through as it wends its way to the Governor’s office,” he said, noting that one amendment was added to the original bill stating that the Legislature established the high water mark at 407.25.
McConkey credited NH DES officials for their cooperation and study.
He said the bill [once passed] would erase any doubt over ownership lines. “This will allow people to buy or transfer property around the lake.”
The bill, introduced in January, had the support of the Freedom and Ossipee select boards, the Ossipee Lake Alliance and the N.H. Lakes Association. McConkey and Merrow thanked many experts and officials who worked on this bill or provided testimony, including Jim Rines of White Mountain Survey, Bryan Berlind of Land Tech Service, Chester “Rick” Chellman, William Sheehan of Sheehan Associates, Charlie Smith of Westward Shores, Rene Pelletier and Jim Gallagher from NHDES.
Rines, president of White Mountain Survey, said the line adjustment should clear up boundary questions for Ossipee Lake shorefront property owners. Rines testified before state legislators on the proposed bill.
“I think there’s going to be a dramatic improvement for landowners, as well as any consultants who work on the lake. Instead of multiple boundary lines [for shoreline setbacks] there will be a single, uniform one.”
Rines said he didn’t think this legislatively adjusted high water mark would affect other lakes in the state.
“I don’t think it will cause a cascading affect for other lakes,” he said, adding that in this case, supporters found actual evidence that the Ossipee Lake natural high water mark was actually feet lower than the 410 foot mark set by the state. “Some property owners held off applying for permits; I had clients who were denied permits for wetlands work on property below the 410-foot [mean high water mark] line. Now, this change is going to make things easier,” said Rines.
“We did a lot of work on this,” said Rep. Merrow. “Ossipee Lake is a dammed lake, so we felt the level at 410 was wrong… one person had a whole lot below the 410 mark, so it created a lot of problems there,” he said.
The Ossipee select board had actually denied several property tax abatement requests that came about due to the lake level conundrum.