Private Swim Areas Are Illegal
If you have a private swim area in Maine, it’s time to haul in the swim line. The Maine Legislature decided roped-off, private swim areas on waters owned by the public should not be permitted. Some exceptions are granted for licensed camps and government entities.
Actually, they’ve never been lawful. But few people knew it and roped-off swim areas are common on many lakes and ponds.
Conflicts among private shoreland owners and others at Sebago Lake brought the issue to the legislature this year. After a protracted hearing and several work sessions, the legislature decided private shoreland owners would not be allowed to rope-off swim areas in front of private camps and homes.
LD 415, An Act Relating to Interference with Navigation on Inland Waters, was a significant bill governing the placement and use of regulatory markers and swim line floats in inland waters. Among its numerous provisions, the original bill made it illegal to tie a watercraft beyond the 200-foot water safety zone and to establish private swimming areas marked by floats or buoys, on any inland water.
Tom Papsadora of Sebago Lake drafted the bill and offered extensive testimony at its public hearing in March. Supporters presented evidence of many problems due to the impreciseness of the current law. Papsadora reported that shoreland owners who wanted to restrict access to those waters had blocked navigable water at Sebago Lake with floats in many places. Much of the testimony came from Sebago Lake anglers and shoreland owners.
Opponents of the bill included shoreland owners and advocates for children who claimed that the safety of their kids necessitates roping off swimming areas along the shore.
Bruce Hart of Sebago presented excellent testimony, reporting that he belonged to a group working on a local ordinance under the state’s harbormaster law. He explained the problems he’s encountered at Sebago Lake and what his town is doing to address those problems. He pointed out several flaws in the proposed legislation.
Will Harris, Director of Maine’s Bureau of Parks and Lands, testified “neither for nor against” LD 415, and offered very specific recommendations for changes in the bill if the committee was interested in enacting it.
“In principle,” testified Harris, “the Bureau and Department of Conservation supports the proposition that these shorefront owners should not be allowed to fence off their shorefront and prevent boaters from approaching the owners’ shorefront.”
“Currently, the bureau is unable to address the issue,” reported Harris, “as we are told by the Attorney General’s office that our authority basically limits us to establishing an inland waters marking system to identify hazards to navigation and to mark such hazards within funds available. We do not have authority to require permits for swim areas and we do not have authority to limit the extent of swim areas except as they interfere and create a hazard to navigation. As such, our rules prohibit placing swim lines outside the Water Safety Zone or from blocking access to a public boat ramp.”
“The current bill,” continued Harris, “as written would give our Bureau authority to issue permits for swim areas to governmental entities and commercial campgrounds, while making all other swim lines illegal.”
He went on to list the bureau’s specific concerns about the bill and estimated it would take 1800 hours of staff time to develop the expected rules and issue the expected permits. “With an office staff of three this amounts to 1/3 of their time and is expected to significantly interrupt their efforts to fulfill their principle duties or acquiring and developing new boat access sites,” Harris testified.
After several work sessions on the bill were postponed, drawing Papsadora to Augusta needlessly, the legislature’s Fish and Wildlife Committee finally worked on the bill on April 9.
Paul Jacques, Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Inland Fisheries and Wildlife, offered comments on this issue, reminding the committee that all waters belong to the people and no authority for private swimming areas exists in statute. There is a statute that prohibits boats from being in swimming areas. Jacques gave George Powell of the Department of Conservation a lot of credit for creating an amended version of this bill.
The DOC’s Harris handed out and discussed a four-page draft amendment governing the creation of private swim areas. The amendment provided criteria for establishing swim areas, including areas established by private shoreland owners and by recreational camps and shorefront owners association. And the amendment allowed swim areas to be established without a permit by private shoreland owners and public entities as long as they met the criteria. Others would have to apply for a permit from the DOC with the fees dedicated to the Boating Facilitates Fund.
Senator David Trahan suggested the opportunity to establish swim areas ought to be limited to June, July, and August and the bill ought to be unsettled in 2 years so the committee could evaluate the impact.
The amended version of LD 415 received the unanimous ought-to-pass vote of the committee with a 2-year sunset and a limit for the establishment of swim areas to the period between June 1 and September 1 with different time periods established in northern and southern zones.
But the long drawn-out debate wasn’t over. Not nearly. Here is the rest of the story.
On April 30, the Fish and Wildlife Committee began its deliberations by reconsidering its previous action in support of the amended version of the bill.
Senator Bruce Bryant said he had a problem with creating a right in law to establish private swimming areas in public waters. The committee questioned Parks Director Harris extensively as it explored various aspects of the bill. There were many questions. Rep. Mike Shaw said he would rather get rid of private swimming areas and ban them.
Senator Troy Jackson said he’d only allow children’s camps and similar places to have swim areas and ban all others. He said he wanted to reaffirm the state’s ownership of the public’s water.
Tom Papadoras, who proposed the bill, said he’d rather ban all private swimming areas, but the state didn’t seem to have that authority, and what authority it did have had been allocated to others including municipalities. He said that a need to raise money to deal with the problem led to this bill and his primary purpose in submitting the bill was to give DIF&W and DOC authority to regulate or ban private swimming areas.
Rep. Ralph Sarty moved to limit swim areas to licensed commercial and governmental operations, establish a state permitting system, and require permits from the state for these swim areas with appropriate limits on the location and size of the swim areas and regular inspections by the state, and private swimming areas should not be allowed.
The committee worked on an amendment that achieved pretty much what Rep. Sarty described. The amended version won the unanimous support of the committee.
The amendment flew through the House and Senate and was signed into law by Governor John Baldacci on June 9, 2009.
Now that, my friends, is how a bill becomes the law.
This may be a whole lot more than you ever wanted to know about private swimming areas, but more controversy lies ahead as folks who have had them for years find out they can’t have them anymore. Presumably, game wardens, police officers, harbormasters, and even their neighbors, may remind them of the new law. The law even gives code enforcement officers authority to shut down illegal swim areas.
If you would like to read the entire law, Section 1, 12 MRSA, c.220, sub-c.10, titled Regulation of Swim Areas on Inland Waters, you can find it on the website of the Maine Legislature. Just type LD 415 in the box at the top and when it comes up, select “amendment.” You can print a copy of the law.
The new law prohibits private swim areas, with exceptions. The Bureau of Parks and Lands is authorized to issue permits to “qualified entities” to establish and maintain swim areas within the water safety zone “designed to provide recreational swimming opportunities for the public.”
“Qualified entities” are defined as “a camping area, recreational camp or governmental entity or governmentally sponsored group.”
“Recreational camp” means “day camps, boys and girls camps and family, hunting, fishing and similar camps” licensed by the state.
Of course, this is state government, so fees are established for swim area permits, except those “operated by the State or a governmental entity or a recreational camp.” I guess only camping areas will have to pay the fees.
Do not contact the Bureau of Parks and Lands just yet, if you think you are qualified for a permit to establish a private swimming area. Before issuing permits, the Bureau must first adopt rules to implement this new law.
But do pull in the ropes and buoys if you’ve got a private swimming area. They have never been legal. Just don’t let any of this prevent you from enjoying a refreshing swim in the cold clear waters of inland lakes and ponds. You won’t have to stay inside the ropes!