Public vs. Private Rights Along an Evolving Lake Winnisquam

Editor’s Note: Lakes across the state face the same issues as Ossipee Lake in providing water access to the public while protecting the environment. In this Laconia Daily Sun article, a reporter tours Lake Winnisquam with a long-time resident to see some of the challenges first-hand.    

Art Abelmann says public access to New Hampshire’s lakes is often a balancing act between protecting the resource and making sure people have an opportunity to enjoy it.

For nearly 25 years, the former Laconia High School vice principal has lived in a home that was built on the shore of Lake Winnisquam in 1957. 

Abelmann relishes his views of water, trees and even the occasional bald eagle. He fell in love with the place at first sight and immediately told the real estate agent he would buy it.

Abelmann has made improvements over the years, but the house maintains a comfortable, relaxed vibe. It is on the east side of the lake, providing ample light and beautiful sunsets.

“I try not to take it for granted,” he said. “What it says to me is just relaxation.”

On Tuesday, he provided a tour of the lake in his 250-horsepower, 21-foot Glastron bow rider. Skies were cloudy and there were as many loons floating on the glassy water as there were boats.

For Abelmann, launching a boat on the lake is as simple as walking down to his dock, releasing the lines and starting the engine. But for the public at large, access is more complicated.

Public vs. Private
The state owns the lakes and people have the right to use them, but the catch is that most of the land around the state’s 1,000 lakes is in private hands. Public access that does exist is often in the form of a boat ramp rather than a public beach.

Tom O’Brien, president of NH Lakes, which promotes clean water policies and responsible use, said private property rights and public access are often in conflict.

“In theory the lakes are accessible to anyone, but in fact our private property laws and norms and patterns evolved since the beginning of this country result, in many instances, with the majority of shoreline being privately owned,” he said.

“We don’t get in the middle of that age-old construct, except where those opportunities exist to create and improve appropriate and responsible access to lakes. We are highly supportive of that.”

Last year, the state Fish and Game Department rejected a request from the town of Ossipee to allow swimming at a department-owned boat launch on Connor Pond, citing a law that seeks to protect public safety.

At one time there was no free public boat access on 4,264-acre Lake Winnisquam. Almost a dozen years ago, the state opened a double ramp boat access facility off Water Street. The general public can swim at Bartlett Beach and at Ahern State Park.

Until about two decades ago, there was no free public boat access on 6,791-acre Squam Lake, the second largest lake located entirely in New Hampshire. That changed when the state opened a facility in Squam channel. There are some town beaches intended for local residents, and some hiking trails that lead to the water.

Deeper Water
As Abelmann guided his boat away from the dock and into deeper water, he talked about the competing interests at play when it comes to Winnisquam and other lakes.

“It’s a balance between access and a crowded lake,” he said. “If you have too much access, the lake gets too crowded and nobody has any fun and they don’t come back. If you don’t have any access, then nobody can enjoy it.”

There were no other boats in sight as he motored out, but one loon quickly appeared and then a group of three.

You picked a great day,” he said. “It’s calm and quiet out here.”

Pollution Concerns
Water quality here and in many other lakes has improved over the last few decades, but there are still concerns. 

O’Brien, of NH Lakes, said passage of the federal Clean Water Act in 1972 helped greatly with “end of pipe discharges,” such as releases from wastewater treatment plants.

“Raw or under-treated sewage was getting into Winnisquam and many lakes like it,” he said. “Work done since the 1970s to upgrade municipal and industrial releases led to marked change.”

The challenge now is to reduce runoff from roads, parking lots and lawns. This runoff may contain salt, fertilizer and other pollutants that lead to algae and bacteria blooms.

As more and bigger homes are built near lakes, more water runs off roofs and off land now covered by pavement. In this way, people investing huge sums of money to enjoy the natural beauty of the lake can inadvertently harm water quality.

“We run the risk of loving our lakes to death,” said O’Brien, whose group advocates responsible, lake-friendly practices including preserving forest canopies, maintaining vegetation, fields and meadows and minimizing manicured lawns.

Lake Winnisquam’s water quality benefits from Ahern State Park’s 3,500 feet of undeveloped shoreline. It and other lakes in the region also benefit from non-profit organizations and private owners who keep land in a natural state.

The beach at the state park and nearby trails can easily be seen from Abelmann’s boat. He is concerned that plans being discussed for development of property at the nearby former Laconia State School could place additional pressure on the lake or even lead to efforts to develop portions of the park.

“I realize that the law says it can’t be developed, but I worry,” he said. “Money talks.”

Aside from the park, the shoreline has its share of modest homes that undoubtedly got their start as family vacation camps. Also in evidence are mansions that have replaced such homes. One has extensive rock work that must have cost thousands of dollars. Another is in a rustic log cabin format, but it is no cabin.

Rising Values
Property values have increased greatly, along with property taxes, over the last couple decades. Abelmann said some owners have been forced out by increasing property taxes.

“The neighborhood has changed,” he said. “Because it really was all camps, and then people started buying the camps and knocking them down and building these monstrosities.”

He pointed to one particularly big lakehouse, with a small camp house next door.

“The little camp would fit inside the other house,” he said.

But he is also happy about some of the changes he has seen during his time living at the lake.

“I see bald eagles, absolutely,” he said. “That’s a comeback, they were never here when I first got here. In fact in the cove over there, I have seen two of them.”

Return to Dock
He took the boat to the quiet northern end of the lake and then steered around some shallow areas on his way back to the dock.

“There’s a certain avenue I need to follow here,” he explained.

Once he shut off the motor, it was seemingly so quiet that one could hear a pin drop. No engines. No lawn equipment. No traffic. No voices. Also, no worries.

Walking slowly along the dock, Abelmann remembered he left his tennis shoes on the boat.

“It’s OK. I’ll get them later.”

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