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Brunswick panel favors seasonal motorboat use at Simpson's Point

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Brunswick panel favors seasonal motorboat use at Simpson's Point

BRUNSWICK — The Simpson's Point boat landing may be reopened to motorized boats on a seasonal basis if the Town Council accepts a recommendation from a commission looking into the issue.

The Rivers and Coastal Waters Commission on Wednesday unanimously recommended that the council ask Maine's Department of Environmental Protection to reopen the landing to boats with submerged propellers between Oct. 1 and May 1.

At the same meeting, commissioners agreed to ask the Parks and Recreation Department to study the possibility of opening Simpson's Point, and other town-owned boat launches, as sanctioned public swimming areas.

Since the closure of the launch to motorized boats in 2008, Simpson's Point has become a popular, but unsanctioned, recreation area for swimmers, kayakers and beach goers.

Commissioners hope opening the launch to off-season traffic provides a compromise between shellfish harvesters, who have traditionally used the ramp to access nearby flats, and people who use it for recreation.

"People swim there, people enjoy it," Chairman Mark Worthing said.

"The conflict that we have internally in the town is that if it's an operating boat ramp, with motorized boats coming and going, we shouldn't have swimmers there," he added.

The commission's vote followed a public hearing last week, where both sides weighed in on reopening the launch.

A clear message of conciliation and willingness to compromise emerged from people at the hearing, Worthing said.

"They all seemed to bend enough to say, maybe this could work out," he said.

The conflicting uses of Simpson's Point emerged after the release of a 2012 report from MER Assessment Corp. that determined that motorboat traffic could not be blamed for an eel grass decline in the area.

Preserving the crucial marine habitat was the main reason DEP closed the launch.

In their recommendation to the council, commissioners referenced the study's findings, and added that many clammers find it dangerous to access harvesting areas from the nearby Mere Point boat landing.

At last week's public hearing, two harvesters said high winds around Mere Point are serious hazards for launching small boats used for clamming.

An off-season opening, when eel grass is defoliated, will reduce the impact of propellers on the plants, which is the DEP's main concern, Harbormaster Dan Devereaux  said.

"This is the best-case scenario, when you consider safety and when you consider the reason why the boat launch was closed initially," Devereaux noted.

Commissioners declined to make a recommendation on air boats at the launch, which has the possibility of becoming a divisive issue.

At the public hearing, half a dozen nearby landowners expressed their opposition to allowing air boats to return to Simpson's Point, stating that public recreational use is preferable to the noisy craft.

Commissioners may discuss regulating air boats if DEP agrees to reopen the point, Worthing said. 

Although their recommendation to councilors implicitly acknowledges Simpson's Point has become a popular recreation destination, commissioners decided to pass the decision about opening it as a formal swimming area to the Parks and Recreation Department.

Questions around using the area for recreation include that the town's recreation and marine resources ordinances prohibit swimming at town-owned boat launches.

Inadequate parking, a lack of sanitation facilities, and the fact the town does not own shoreline surrounding the 50-foot wide boat launch are also problems.

While the commissioners have discussed the issue of swimming at the launch at length, a final decision falls to the Recreation Commission, which is responsible for overseeing the town's 10 boat launches.

"The Rivers and Coastal Waters Commission has a lot of work ahead of it," Devereaux said. "I think it's reasonable to turn left and hand the football off here."

Helene Harrower, the commission's commercial representative, suggested that Parks and Recreation take a wider view on the issue and discuss opening other boat ramps, like Mere Point, to swimming.

Town Councilor Suzan Wilson, the council's representative, agreed.

"Simpson's Point is the precipitating thing, it's what got us all talking," Wilson said, "but it's not really the whole picture."

Peter L. McGuire can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 100 or pmcguire@theforecaster.net. Follow him on Twitter @mcguiremidcoast.