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In a sliver of Lake Sunapee, boaters and homeowners clash over public water access

photograph of Ryan Nugent at the wheel of his boat
Todd Bookman
Ryan Nugent, an avid boater on Lake Sunapee, tours the lake.

Ryan Nugent is a prudent boat owner.

Step on board his 22-foot bow rider, and the first thing he does is point out the fire extinguisher and life jackets.

“My wife makes fun of me,” he admitted. “I’m very cautious about everything I do with the boat.”

Nugent, an Air Force veteran and commercial airline pilot, spends his summers boating on Lake Sunapee, in the western part of the state. Along with his wife and three children, he likes to scoot across the big open heart of the water and into Jobs Creek. It’s a finger off the main part of the lake, narrow like a canal, accessible in the northwest corner.

“We're back here just to relax, get out of the wind a little bit, let the kids swim,” he said. “And then we are usually here for a couple of hours and then we leave.”

Lake Sunapee is one of New Hampshire’s jewels: an 8-mile long postcard perfect body of water that attracts celebrity homeowners like Steven Tyler and Ken Burns, and local families on weekends. But there’s tension right now at Sunapee involving this sliver of water that Nugent and other boaters favor for its calm water and cove-like swimming area.

Lakefront homeowners on Jobs Creek say a surge in boat traffic in the past few years is bad for the environment and public safety. This summer, they submitted a petition asking the state, which owns and oversees the lake, to prohibit rafting— when multiple boats tie up together, a common way for multiple boaters to socialize — as well as restrict single boats from dropping anchor within 150-feet of shoreline. If approved, the restrictions would apply only down at the end of the creek, where the water widens to form a pond within the broader lake.

photograph showing five boats rafted together inside Jobs Creek
Submitted by William Hack as an exhibit during public hearing on Jobs Creek petition
N.H. Department of Safety
During busy summer weekends, boats will "raft" together inside of the basin at the end of Jobs Creek.

Needless to say, boaters like Ryan Nugent weren’t happy with the petition.

“To be here, after years of military service and what not, and bring my family here and have my kids swimming in the water and harmlessly enjoying an awesome lake, to be categorized as loitering is insanely offensive,” he said.

So-called "No Rafting" zones were first introduced in New Hampshire in the 1980s and are currently only found on three bodies of water. That includes two other small sections of Lake Sunapee and more than 15 designated zones on Lake Winnipesaukee.

The proposed Jobs Creek zone is dividing the community, an example of the tension that often arises when you have an attractive public resource—a lake, a trailhead, a beach—and competing visions of how it should be used.

For 125 years, the Lake Sunapee Protective Association, a non-profit now led by Elizabeth Harper, has been trying to balance these concerns. People love this lake, people want to come use the lake, swim in it, sail on it, she said, but that traffic also threatens it.

“It’s an incredibly important resource, but because there is such heavy use of the resource, it leads to problems,” Harper said. “It leads to challenges in terms of water quality and trying to maintain that ecological integrity.”

Lake Sunapee, formed 12,000 years ago by glaciers and frequented by water lovers seemingly ever since, is healthy, according to Harper. Her group isn’t taking a position on the petition, but it is cautious about the impact of all the boat traffic in Jobs Creek.

“When the anchors go down into the sediment, that’s bringing up sediment to the surface, disrupting sediment in a way that can release phosphorus which is a concern for algal blooms, cyanobacterial blooms,” she said. “And we also know that it influences the plant life that is on the bottom of the lake.”

She notes that fertilizer runoff from people insistent on having green lawns can also harm the lake. Pretty much any time humans come into contact with a body of water, there are impacts.

The reason Jobs Creek is coming to a head right now, though, appears to be due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

“It has been very good for boating,” said David Kennedy with the advocacy group BoatUS.

A surge in boat ownership and people spending more time outdoors has led to frictions across the U.S., including in Georgia, Florida, and Sausalito, Calif. His group opposes the proposed no rafting ordinance on Sunapee, arguing that even seemingly limited restrictions on boat use can morph into “death by a thousand cuts.”

“Well, we are just going to cut it out here, and just here. And then all of a sudden there is nowhere to go,” Kennedy said.

photo of Nugent in his boat
Todd Bookman

Homeowners on Jobs Creek presented a different set of facts during a public comment hearing last month inside Sunapee Town Hall.

William Hack, who started the petition and owns a home facing the affected cove, declined an interview for this story. He told the hearing officer that there were environmental concerns with the increased boat traffic, while another supporter, Dave Howland, painted an intimate picture of what it's like to watch and hear boaters from shore.

“They anchor for four hours, drinking beer. They need to relieve themselves, and they do,” he said.

There were also concerns raised about safety, with one neighbor saying she was fearful of kids swimming around anchored boats.

But last week, New Hampshire Department of Safety Commissioner Robert Quinn rejected the petition, ruling in a 16-page opinion that there wasn't enough evidence to impose boating restriction in the creek. That decision could still be appealed, but for now at least, boaters can still visit Jobs Creek, tie up and drop anchor.

That includes Ryan Nugent.

“COVID brought people like myself and my family to add to the volume,” he said. “But I think you can add to the volume and still participate responsibly, and not damage it.”

Todd started as a news correspondent with NHPR in 2009. He spent nearly a decade in the non-profit world, working with international development agencies and anti-poverty groups. He holds a master’s degree in public administration from Columbia University.
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