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Complaints heating up again at Gardner Lake State Park

Salem — Complaints about too many people behaving badly in the water and on land have surfaced at Gardner Lake State Park in past years, and this summer is no different.

The almost 10-acre park was created in 2001, giving the public access to the 528-acre lake for boating and swimming. It is operated by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP).

One overriding concern this year is the presence of numerous jet skis that often congregate close to the swimming area adjacent to the boat launch.

Jeff Murray, of Andover, rented a boat slip in Salem for the first time this year. He said a group of about 10-15 jet skis on Sunday contributed to three "close calls," including one jet ski that almost hit his boat head on, one that was close enough to throw water into his boat from its wake and another jet ski that came within 20 feet of his son as the boy was being towed on a wakeboard.

"Something's going to happen. Somebody's going to get really hurt. I was scared to death they were going to hit my son," Murray said.

He said the behavior of some of the jet skiers led him to believe they didn't have the training necessary to operate the vessels safely.

Murray pointed to the Coventry Lake Boat Launch, also operated by DEEP, where he said a seasonal attendant on weekends checks for licenses and registration and enforced a counterclockwise rotation for vessels so all traffic moved in the same direction.

DEEP spokesman Will Healy said in an email that the agency's Environmental Conservation (EnCon) police conduct boat patrols in addition to extra patrols paid for by the Gardner Lake Authority. He said the boating division's boating education assistants — of whom there are 20 in total — are "regularly deployed" to the park, typically on weekends and on holidays.

"With 117 state boat launches, however, they cannot cover all of the launches each weekend," he said of the assistants.

The assistants are responsible for the general management of the boat launch and parking facility and for sharing information about boating safety and invasive weeds with boaters, according to Healy.

"DEEP has also realigned the swimming area buoys to better separate swimmers and vessels, marked the swimming area with navigation markers and swim buoys, and added signage to improve safety at the Boat Launch area," he wrote.

Healy declined over the phone to provide specifics about the number of patrols at the state park or the number of hours covered by boating education assistants on weekends.

Salem First Selectman Kevin Lyden said the town's two resident state troopers do rounds at least daily at the state park in addition to the EnCon patrols. The Gardner Lake Authority — which consists of members from Salem, Montville and Bozrah — pays for a limited amount of EnCon water patrols on weekends.

Kate Johnson, a member of the Gardner Lake Authority from Montville, said the agency budgeted $10,000 this year for lake safety. The majority of the money is spent on the water patrols, which cover about four hours per week between Memorial Day and Labor Day.

Salem pays 60% of the Gardner Lake Authority's $24,450 budget, Johnson said. Montville pays 30% and Bozrah pays 10%.

Lyden said DEEP should provide more enforcement.

"It would be nice to find what's the right balance and have DEEP provide a certain level of enforcement if there's that many people going out on the lake from the boat launch," he said.

Lyden noted parking at all state parks is free through the Passport to the Parks program funded by a blanket $10 fee on motor vehicle registrations. He said the idea was that there'd be more money for maintenance, supervision and enforcement at the state parks.

"I don't think it's unreasonable to expect the park to be managed properly."

Previous pleas directed at DEEP from Lyden and other officials led to an alcohol ban four years ago to help control the unruly crowds and to the addition of dumpsters for keeping litter at bay, according to Lyden.

"We want it to be a more manageable park. It's better than it was four years ago, but it's been painstaking," he said.

Lyden credited DEEP Commissioner Katie Scharf Dykes, who took the helm of the agency in 2019, with helping things run smoothly last summer and pledging her ongoing support.

He said he will reach out to the commissioner directly if complaints continue.

Gardner Lake Authority co-chairman Scott D. Soderberg said a lack of state oversight at the state park means that "on a hot day, it gets very crowded and it gets out of control."

He said the jet skis "buzzing around in and out" of the boat launch right next to the beach area is dangerous.

"When I was younger, no matter where we went, if it was a public beach there was oversight," he said. "If someone went outside the ropes, a whistle blew. A mother sitting there with kids didn't have to worry so much."

Soderberg noted canopy-style tents set up on the beach make it hard for some people to see beyond them while watching children in the water.

He said the lack of preventative measures means the state is going to be in a reactive position if someone is "hurt bad or, heaven forbid, dies."

"If you can't fund it and manage it properly, you should probably close it because it's very unsafe," he said.


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