Lake Winnipesaukee Boat Speed Limit Clears Panel

CONCORD — By a split vote, the Senate’s Transportation Committee on Wednesday recommended the passage of a boating speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee.

Supporters of House Bill 847 are adamant that a boating speed limit will improve safety on the Big Lake without hurting business and the issue will likely be voted upon in the full Senate next Thursday.

Sandy Helve, the leader behind the pro-speed limit Winnipesaukee Family Alliance for Boating Safety, praised the committee for supporting what she called a “reasonable” measure that would implement the speed limit for two years and only on Lake Winnipesaukee.

“We think the senators’ ‘ought to pass’ vote shows they understand this is a fair middle ground,” said Helve.

The political battle over a bill proposing a 45 mile-per-hour daytime and 25 mph nighttime speed limit on Lake Winnipesaukee has been ongoing for years, with two distinct groups fighting from both sides of the issue.

The bill proposes that the speed limit law will go out of existence in two years unless it is reauthorized.

House Bill 847 has already passed the House with a large majority but similar bills have been killed in the Senate.

On Wednesday members of the Senate Transportation and Interstate Cooperation Committee voted to recommend its passage by a 3-2 vote, with Democratic senators Peter Burling, Betsi DeVries and Molly Kelly voting in majority and Republicans Robert Clegg and Robert Letourneau opposing it.

Letourneau, the chair of the committee, said there was little debate over the issue considering that members heard hours of testimony during a public hearing in late April.

“Everybody had their minds made up,” said Letourneau.

The Transportation Committee chair is among those who feel the bill is unnecessary and could hurt the economy by placing more restrictions on a lake that is important to the state’s tourism industry.

He said the passage of such laws could combine with already-rising gas costs to hit business owners in the wallet and he said he has talked to marina owners in the Lakes Region who have already had customers tell them that they will not put their boats in the water this year.

“The Big Lake is definitely a tourist attraction. We are going to take a hit [with gas prices] and add another one to it,” said Letourneau of the possible passage of the boating speed limit.

However, he suspects there will be much more debate when it reaches the floor and the full Senate takes it up.

Opponents of the boating speed limit have called the bill “feel-good” legislation that seeks to correct a problem they do not feel exists. They have pointed to data that suggest few serious boating accidents have occurred in the state in recent years.

Many people — including members of the New Hampshire Recreational Boaters Association — have urged for better enforcement of existing laws like the “safe passage rule”.

Association spokesperson Erica Blizzard, a representative from Lakeport Landing Marina, said she was discouraged by Wednesday’s vote and the indication that the issue appears to be divided along party lines.

“I can’t believe how political it’s become because it dismisses the facts, which is that there are not high-speed accidents on Lake Winnipesaukee,” said Blizzard.

She echoed the sentiment that the speed limit will and already is impacting business on the lake.

Blizzard said many boaters appear tired of rising gas prices combined with the possibility of being hassled by a law she said is viewed as unnecessary.

“Our customers are saying, ‘Enough is enough,’ and that boating is becoming more expensive and less enjoyable,” said Blizzard.

Others, like the large contingency making up the Winnipesaukee Family Alliance for Safe Boating or (WinnFABS) have pushed for its passage, calling it necessary to both safety and quality of life on the state’s largest and most congested lake.

House Transportation Committee Chair Jim Ryan, D-Franklin, said he was happy to receive a note on Wednesday informing him of the Senate committee’s vote.

“I am pleased the Senate has followed the lead of the House and will take this small step to advancing boating safety in this trial period provided by the House,” said Ryan.

Jeff Thurston of Thurston’s Marina in Weirs Beach is among the local dealers supporting the proposed law as a way of ensuring that everyone can use the lake with a sense that they are safe.

Thurston said he has traveled to Lake George in New York and witnessed that a speed limit can work and not have negative consequences on business.

“I think it’s long overdue, and I applaud the insight that was displayed by the House and now this committee. Families and children should feel safe being out on the water,” said Thurston.

The Weirs Beach business owner expressed his feeling that officials must act to “nurture” a lake that is among its biggest tourist draws in the state.


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