'Ghost' permits: Brunswick panel grapples with boat launch user fees
BRUNSWICK — Nine years ago, an advisory committee set up to review a proposed boat launch at Mere Point suggested the town monitor commercial users at the site for the first few years, to determine if wear on the facilities or impact to local businesses would make permits necessary.
That monitoring proved that concerns the Mere Point launch would be mobbed by kayak outfitters and commercial haulers were unfounded, Harbormaster Dan Devereaux said recently, and the permit issue was largely forgotten.
Commercial permits have been a topic of discussion at the last two meetings of the recently established Rivers and Coastal Waters Commission, and questions are being asked about how often private operators are using the town's public facilities, and whether they should be asked to help pay for maintenance.
So far, the RCWC has only discussed the permitting issue, but Commission Chairman Mark Worthing confirmed that the issue is back on the table for serious consideration.
Clouding the discussion is the fact the town's harbor ordinance requires commercial operators to obtain a "special activity permit" to use the town's public launches. But in reality, there is no such permit.
"Even though it refers to it in the ordinance, the special activity form doesn't exist," said Devereaux, who calls the non-existent licenses "ghost" permits.
"Through the new commission we're trying to develop some reasonable criteria for a special activity permit" that would apply to all of the town's 10 boat launches, he added.
No one, it seems, has a full grasp of how often commercial operators use the town's facilities.
The ordinance defines commercial use as "a use with profit as a primary aim," including a variety of operators, from kayak touring companies and duck hunting guides, to companies that haul and launch large recreational vessels.
Until funding cuts eliminated the positions in 2010, the town's two park rangers monitored launch activity during peak times on weekends and holidays.
Since then, there hasn't been daily monitoring of the town's 10 launches, which has fallen to the town's marine patrol, amid its many other duties.
So far there have been only minor issues, although both Devereaux and Parks and Recreation Director Tom Farrell described periods of hectic activity when commercial haulers line up to take boats out in advance of hurricanes or other serious storms.
The town's Parks and Recreation Department oversees the public boat launches.
Aside from one incident when the Sawyers Park landing was damaged by a hauler during a storm, there's been no cause to revisit the permits, Farrell said.
"I don't think there's really been an imminent reason why we would need to do it," Farrell said.
Although there don't appear to be problems with the current system, town officials are taking a second look at the permits as a way to buttress budgets in a period of austerity.
Costs and fees
At an RCWC meeting earlier this month, Vice Chairwoman Sue Stableford latched onto the special activity permit, questioning if commercial operators are getting a free ride from the town.
"It just doesn't seem to be reasonable for the town to be maintaining this facility and folks coming from out of town, which a lot of the outfitters are, and using the facilities at no cost," Stableford said. "I think they're just using a resource that we're all supporting as taxpayers. They're making money, but they're not supporting it in any way."
Historically, Brunswick has shied away from implementing user fees, but as budgets have shrunk and belts have tightened, that thinking is changing.
"Nobody wants to pay higher taxes," Devereaux said. "I think it's only due diligence for the town and departments within the town to try to figure out other ways to raise revenue."
Many towns, like Brunswick, have no fees for using public launch facilities. But at least two nearby communities have implemented steep charges for commercial operators.
In Yarmouth, commercial operators must obtain a $50 daily use permit or a $400 seasonal permit.
In Falmouth, commercial haulers are charged $250 per year to use the Town Landing. Operators who are launching boats to be used outside Falmouth waters face an additional fee of $10 per foot.
The town's regulations helped eliminate problems Falmouth had with too many haulers using the landing, Harbormaster Al Twombley said.
"It was putting a strain on our resource," Twombley said. "That's why they enacted an ordinance, to cut down on that."
When the Mere Point Citizen's Advisory Committee made its recommendations nine years ago, it declined to establish a fee structure, noting the wide disparity in charges across the many public launches it reviewed, Farrell said.
But he, too, now thinks looking at implementing fees might be a good idea.
"I think this is one option to be able to potentially recoup some revenue to help offset some of the costs associated with maintaining some of the facilities," he said.
Reconsidering extra fees probably won't be welcomed by commercial operators who are accustomed to using the town's launches for free.
Lydia Pontes, who co-owns Pontes boat yard in Topsham, called any attempt to put a fee system in place "crazy."
"I'm against that," Pontes said. "I don't think they should charge a fee for people, they already make enough money, the towns."
Pontes estimated her business launches 50 or more boats every year from several public sites in Brunswick, including the Mere Point launch.
Her company intentionally avoids towns like Yarmouth and Falmouth, which charge a fee to use their facilities.
"We don't go to those places," Pontes said. "We go to the freebies."
Although it may ruffle some feathers, Farrell said he was glad the RCWC is taking a comprehensive look at issues facing the town's coastal resources.
"I see this as a really positive process for people to get a good understanding for what we have as assets in respect to water access," he said, "and trying to more clearly articulate to the community the requirements and regulations for use of these locations."