Brunswick, Topsham take different approaches to dissuading river swimmers

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After the drowning death of Brian Jewett last month, Brunswick and Topsham officials approved new signs discouraging Androscoggin River swimmers from jumping off the Swinging Bridge, the walking span connecting the two towns.

The Topsham Board of Selectmen on Sept. 3 unanimously approved a new sign on its side of the bridge. On Tuesday the Brunswick Town Council voted 8-1 to follow suit, although with slightly different language.

The language also reflects differences between the towns’ approaches to deterring swimming in the area above the hydroelectric dam. Topsham has so far been content to settle on sign, but across the river on Tuesday, some Brunswick councilors were calling for an outright prohibition. 

“The council can do whatever it can to stop swimming in the river,” Councilor Ben Tucker said. “It’s dangerous and it’s stupid.”

So far it’s unclear how, or if, the towns will come together to draft cooperative swimming ordinances, which both sides agree is necessary for an enforceable prohibition.

Brunswick Police Chief Richard Rizzo said Tuesday that he’d “pushed the ball” to Topsham to draft such an ordinance because it appears the majority of the swimming takes place on that side of the river.

However, Topsham Town Manager Jim Ashe told selectmen last week that little could be done to prevent swimming. 

“If they hurt the cables, hurt the bridge, that’s a criminal issue,” Ashe said. “If we say ‘no jumping off the bridge,’ that’s a local issue; the state won’t prosecute. We have to do everything. So we spend time having a police officer, prosecute it, take it to court, pay the court fees. It would cost us four to five hundred dollars for a $50 fine, probably.”  

Brunswick Town Manager Gary Brown said Tuesday that he would attempt to meet with Topsham officials to reconsider an ordinance.

Meanwhile, the new signs are expected to be posted next spring. 

Draft language for the signs was provided by Nancy Randolph, secretary treasurer of The Topsham language will say, “It is unsafe to swim in the waters between the hydroelectric dam and the black bridge. Swim only at your own risk and incur all expenses of any rescue efforts on your behalf.”

Brunswick councilors voted to strike the sentence stating that swimmers would have to pay for any rescue efforts. Vice Chairman Benet Pols suggested the wording would discourage swimmers from calling for assistance.

The signs, which will likely be framed and fortified with a composite material that resembles wood, will also note that climbing on the bridge and drinking in public are prohibited, and that violators will be prosecuted.

The Topsham sign will also provide a brief history of the suspension bridge, which was built in 1892 by the John A. Roebling Co. of Brooklyn Bridge fame.

Randolph’s non-profit organization plans to raise money to fund both signs. Randolph on Tuesday expressed optimism about securing the funds, and said the signs should be installed by next spring.

Each sign may cost about $2,000 and be about 3 feet wide by 5 feet high, she said.

The Topsham board also voted unanimously to hold a public hearing for its first meeting in October to discuss a “no parking” sign in the small parking lot near the bridge. The sign would affect parking at night, when there have been complaints from neighbors. Ashe said Central Maine Power Co. owns the parking lot land and has given permission for the sign.

Alex Lear can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 113 or Steve Mistler can be reached at 373-9060 ext. 123 or