BERLIN — The race for president and just about every other public office — from governor to justice of the peace — finished a distant second here to the battle over Berlin Pond on Tuesday.
In a nonbinding referendum, voters overwhelmingly urged their Select Board to essentially strip the “No trespassing” signs from a tiny parcel of town-owned land that features 85 feet of shoreline on the pond.
In what is being hailed as a victory by outdoor enthusiasts, voters approved the measure 790-440.
Select Board Chairman Brad Towne said the five-member board will decide how to respond to the lopsided vote in coming weeks, though he conceded it was pretty clear how voters came down on a controversial issue that was credited for a surge in early voting this year.
“There were some people who voted absentee that I have never seen vote in a presidential election before,” said Town Clerk Rosemary Morse, suggesting the heightened interest could be traced to the months-long debate over recreational use of the pond, which serves as the drinking water supply for Montpelier and a portion of Berlin.
According to Morse, roughly 375 residents voted absentee — up roughly 175 from the 2008 election. While lines were manageable Tuesday, the parking lot outside the municipal office building was packed in the early going as a steady stream of voters turned out. By noon 336 absentee ballots had been returned and an additional 400 of the town’s 1,988 registered voters had showed up to vote in person.
The eventual outcome was reflected in interviews conducted with more than two dozen voters Tuesday. Those interviews revealed pond politics aren’t partisan and that folks have strong opinions on both sides of the issue, though a solid majority advocated reasonable access to the pond they view as a recreational resource.
Elaine Lussier was one of them.
An enthusiastic Obama voter, Lussier said she believed the pond should be readily accessible to residents from Berlin and beyond.
“It’s part of the community, and it shouldn’t be restricted just because a few people feel that it should be their private viewing,” said the Vine Street woman, who can’t see the pond from her home.
Marty Lagerstedt can, though he said it isn’t the view that he’s worried about.
Lagerstedt, who voted for Mitt Romney in the presidential race, cited a spike in traffic, a noticeable uptick in break-ins, and littering since the Vermont Supreme Court ruled in May that Montpelier does not have the authority to prohibit boating, fishing and swimming on the pond.
“I’m an outdoorsman as much as anyone, but human nature just kind of says (the pond) is not going to be taken care of as well as it (has been),” Lagerstedt said, admitting he initially welcomed the court’s ruling.
“I was one of the first people out there (on the pond),” he said, noting he has since experienced a change of heart.
However, Lagerstedt predicted he would likely be in the minority when all the votes were counted.
Ellen Ryan said she hoped so.
Ryan, an Obama voter who skewed Republican in most of the down-ticket races, said she believed the Supreme Court correctly settled the issue with its ruling in May.
“Berlin Pond does not belong to Montpelier,” she said. “It belongs to the people, and for Montpelier to try and deny us access is maddening.”
Bill Cooney agreed. Cooney said he doesn’t fish, canoe or kayak but believes others should have a right to and that the town should rethink its decision to post the land that features 85 feet of pond shoreline.
“(Access to the water) shouldn’t be controlled,” said Cooney, who walks around the pond for exercise after the golf course closes for the season.
“I don’t see a problem,” he said.
Joey Conner and Ron Chadwick both do, and the two men said they voted against the initiative based on concerns about how recreational use of the pond would affect the quality of the drinking water supply.
“I don’t want anything in (the water),” Conner said.
In a separate interview, Chadwick sounded the same theme.
“I put ‘no’ down because I like drinking the water, but it ain’t that great of a water,” he said.
Amy Butler said the drinking water concerns were a red herring and that low-impact recreational use, like kayaking, canoeing and fishing, did not pose a credible threat to water quality.
John Mattson said he arrived at the same conclusion — casting his vote in favor of opening access to the town land that neutralized the one his wife mailed in.
“My wife was against it,” he said, suggesting she was concerned that people might urinate in the pond.
“I figure the animals already do,” he said.
Sam and Barbara Geyselaers were among the other couples that canceled each other out.
“She voted ‘no’ and I voted ‘yes,’” Sam Geyselaers said, explaining he voted the way he did because his daughter enjoys kayaking.
Barbara Geyselaers said she was less concerned about her daughter’s recreational hobbies.
“I just want (the pond) left the way it is,” she said.
Crosstown Road residents William and Connie Warren were both on the same page when it comes to the pond. Both outdoor enthusiasts said they supported creating a reasonable access to the pond across the town-owned parcel on Paine Turnpike South. However, while the couple like the idea of kayaking on the pond, they aren’t interested in seeing ice fishing shanties on it.
Although the vote isn’t binding, the results will send a signal to a Select Board that has been lobbied heavily by both sides.
Some have urged the board to do whatever it can to limit or restrict access to the pond, which was considered off-limits for more than a century before the Supreme Court’s ruling. The pond, they were told, was a rare wildlife habitat that deserved special protection.
Others have argued that, in light of the Supreme Court’s ruling, there is no justifiable reason for the town to restrict access to public property. They have urged the board to consider the state Department of Fish & Wildlife’s offer to develop a modest access area at that location — a solution they say would alleviate concerns about the de-facto access area that has developed near the culvert on Mirror Lake Road.
Towne said Tuesday’s vote will inform the board’s decision-making, though he stopped well short of making any commitments on what has been an unusually sensitive subject.
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