Overnight camping plan meets criticism

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SOUTH LONDONDERRY — Residents who attended an open house Thursday about the future of Lowell Lake State Park made their preference clear: they don't want the state to return overnight camping to the park.

The park, which was established in 1979 by the state and expanded in the mid 1980s, once was home to a commercial campground, including a lodge and more than a dozen cabins. But while many of the cabins are still standing, they haven't been used since the 1980s, and one of the big issues the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation is tackling is whether to return overnight camping in restored cabins.

The open house, held Thursday evening at the Londonderry Town Hall, was well attended, and many residents came, quickly went through the state's exhibits, voted and left.

"Leave it as it is," said one comment. "Don't mess with it," said one, "Leave as is," said another. Some said a nature center would be "cool."

The Lowell Lake Resort, which was created in 1880 when a dam was built, has a long history of recreation. The dam was rebuilt by the state in 1981.

But during the past 30 years, it's become a quiet and tranquil place for people who want to swim, fish or paddle. There are no motorized boats allowed on the lake, and the state owns the vast majority of the lake's shoreline.

"It's a common place to find solace on the lake," said Chris Bernier of Andover, the wild turkey project leader with the Agency of Natural Resources, fish and wildlife division. Bernier said he and his family regularly use the lake.

While some residents voiced concern that any increased activity would scare off the loons now using the lake, Bernier said that didn't have to be the case. While the loons nesting on the lake this summer hatched two chicks, Londonderry residents said the chicks had disappeared recently.

Bernier said loons co-exist with human activity on many Vermont lakes, but loon preservationists often put up barriers around the nest to protect the family. "Loons can be on a very busy lake," he said, noting the state had a system for protecting loons in such cases.

Craig Whipple, the state director of Forests, Parks and Recreation, said Lowell Lake, like virtually all state parks, has become increasingly popular with both residents and visitors. Whipple, who attended the open house, said the state is grappling with the balance of high demand with preservation of land, noting that Mount Philo State Park in Charlotte is under similar pressure.

Whipple said the heavy turnout for the open house and intense interest in the park is "a good sign. The local voice is the loudest and it should be.

"It's all of ours," he said of the park.

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Steve Swinburne of South Londonderry, a member of the Londonderry Conservation Commission and an author of children's books about nature, said he is in favor of no changes at Lowell Lake. He said he wants the state to "strike a balance to provide a place for people to recreate and to save the environment," in particular the loons which are now nesting on the lake.

Lowell Lake State Park, which is at the end of a dirt road off busy Route 11 near Magic Mountain Ski Area, has limited parking. Its small parking lot indirectly limits the use of the 109-acre lake, which is surrounded by forestland and includes many hiking trails.

Whipple said the revised master plan for Lowell Lake State Park will be open for public comment for the next 60 days; after that, he would make a recommendation and send it on to his boss, Mike Snyder, commissioner of the Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation.

Among the options on display Thursday night was a plan to renovate the historic cabins and return overnight camping at the park; expanding the parking lot and other amenities; and even charging an entrance fee. By far, overnight accommodations and an entrance fee were the most unpopular options.

Londonderry Select Board member George Mora said the select board has not taken a position on the future of the park, despite being asked to do so by the Londonderry Conservation Commission, which is against any major changes. Mora noted that the buildings were listed on the National Register of Historic Places earlier this year after they were nominated by the state. There are 32 historic structures, including 25 buildings, and the nomination papers described it as a good example of "organized summer camping in Vermont."

Ethan Phelps, the park's regional manager, said if the decision is ultimately made not to establish overnight camping, the state will have to preserve and maintain the buildings, or remove them. And removing them requires state approval from the historic preservation officer.

Rep. Kelly MacLaury Pajala, I-Londonderry, who also is the Londonderry town clerk, said the town "is definitely divided.

"The town wants more information," she said, noting that it hasn't been determined whether the project is in line with both the Windham Regional Plan and the Londonderry town plan.

"Not all my questions have been answered," she said, referring to the state's presentations.

Pajala said the town is in agreement that something has to be done to manage the parking problem and other issues. "It's a great place. It needs to be cared for," she said.

For more information about the master plan, consult https://www.vtstateparks.com/lowell.html.

Contact Susan Smallheer at ssmallheer@reformer.com or at 802 254-2311, ext. 154.


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