Editorial: It’s a mistake to sink boat ramp

Friday, September 01, 2017

A quarter-century has passed since the state Department of Fish and Game acquired the 3.1-acre site on the south end of Lake Sunapee that once was home to Wild Goose Cabins. The goal was to provide free public access to the lake, which is the property of all New Hampshire residents.

As happens with many public boat ramp proposals, opposition from some shoreline property owners and local residents was loud, relentless and effective in preventing access by the boating public. Last month, at long last, the agency had all its permits in hand and funding lined up. Partial clearing of the site could have begun this fall. But then, with no advance warning, Gov. Chris Sununu used his power to pull a key permit saying “it’s time to put an end to this flawed plan.”

With luck, the plan will outlast the governor, who was wrong to overrule the agency, its board of commissioners and the countless experts who’ve examined every possible alternative to a boat ramp on the Wild Goose site and ruled them out.

We don’t know who, if anyone, got to the governor, who made no mention of the boat ramp plan prior to issuing his edict. Sununu promised to work with area residents to find a better solution to “ensure greater public access” but that’s what Fish and Game and its consultants have been doing for decades. There isn’t one.

Free public boat access could theoretically be provided by waiving the entrance fee charged by Sunapee State Park but the property is too small to provide more than a few 40-foot parking spaces for boats and trailers and expanding the ramp would come at the expense of a heavily used state swimming area. The small stream entering the lake near the boat ramp carries sediment that has made the little cove too shallow to accommodate large boats without dredging, an environmental nightmare.

The shopworn argument that a state boat ramp at the Wild Goose site would present a serious traffic hazard is unfounded. The state Department of Transportation and the consulting firms that have studied the situation have said that minor modifications to a state highway and adjacent road would eliminate any safety concerns.

By law, every water body greater than 10 acres, as well as the state’s rivers and streams, belong to all.

No general fund tax revenue is used to purchase property and install boat ramps. That helps to explain why, in a state with about 1,000 lakes and ponds, Fish and Game maintains just 144, some of which, as at Sewalls Falls in Concord, are on rivers.

Opposition to public access proposals, including litigation and the threat of litigation, increases costs and slows or prevents their development. The department has already invested $400,000 in the Wild Goose site, with most of the money coming from federal grants and the portion of the federal gasoline tax attributed to fuel burned by boaters. That’s money down the drain if the plan is scrapped for good.

There are nearly 400 private docks, 178 private boathouses and nearly 1,000 boat slips and moorings on the state’s sixth largest lake. All of them in effect claim a portion of a priceless public resource with little or no benefit to the public. By pulling a permit and preventing construction of the Wild Goose boat ramp, Sununu is doing his part to keep the public off a lake it owns.

We applaud the Fish and Game Commission, which unanimously objected to the governor’s decision, and urge him to reconsider.