Attention Vermont Residents – Your Fishing Rights Could Disappear

Fishing on Berlin Pond is under attack and the decision could have ramifications across Vermont.

Covering 293 acres in the Town of Berlin, Berlin Pond is a popular fishing spot. Since 1884, it has also been the sole source of municipal water to the immediate community and an important source for the City of Montpelier.  In all that time, its water has never been in violation of state or federal drinking water standards.

Over the last few years, a small group is claiming fishing on Berlin Pond is hazardous to the water supply and they have proposed a municipal charter charter change which would give Montpelier jurisdiction over the water. Should this legislation pass, anti-fishing forces will shut down fishing on Berlin Pond immediately.

Besides the unwarranted closure, this would set a dangerous precedent for other communities across Vermont.

Issue Background

Covering 293 acres in the Town of Berlin, Vermont is a popular fishing hole called Berlin Pond. Since 1884, it has also been the sole source of municipal water to the immediate community and an important source for the City of Montpelier, never having violated state or federal drinking water standards. Experts from the Agency of Natural Resources examined the science and affirmed that the protections in place adequately serve the needs of Montpelier’s water customers.

The waters of Berlin Pond are a public resource, but the City of Montpelier owns the territory where the pond sits and therefore has rights to the water. Up until May 2012, Montpelier prohibited all recreational use on the surface of the pond. At that time, the Supreme Court of Vermont ruled that the State of Vermont has jurisdiction over Berlin Pond. This outcome was favorable to anglers because the pond came under state control and reopened to recreational users. The pond is surrounded by private land owners but there is a small access point on the southern end of the pond, and once past that right of way, the waters are free to public use.

In July 2013, the City of Montpelier submitted a petition essentially to reverse this ruling and gain back control of surface water regulation of Berlin Pond. The petitioners requested that the Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation prohibit all motorized vehicles, petroleum products and ice shanties.

The Vermont Department of Environmental Conservation held a public meeting in October 2013 and sought stakeholder input through November 2013 on the City’s petition. In August 2014, the Department announced its decision to partially grant the petition to restrict recreation on surface waters of drinking sources. It found that all internal combustion motors should be prohibited from use on the pond because of the risks these activities can pose to Montpelier’s drinking water. Petroleum products and ice shanties were not prohibited in the Department’s decision because risks associated with their uses are covered under existing law and did not have a demonstrable adverse impact on drinking water.

In addition, the Department declined to grant the request of a petition by Citizens to Protect Berlin Pond to ban all boating, swimming, hunting and fishing on the pond. The Department found that these activities would not threaten Montpelier’s drinking water, and that proper enforcement and education regarding existing laws and rules adequately addresses potential for a conflict between recreation and other uses including wildlife viewing.

On January 20, 2015, H. 33 was introduced by Rep. Warren Kitzmiller, which would give municipalities the authority to issue regulations on drinking water supplies beyond restrictions already imposed by the state. Along with Kitzmiller, the bill is sponsored by Reps. Dakin, Hooper, Keenan, Macaig, McCullough, and Walz. Presently, the regulations on Berlin Pond are fully covered by the Vermont Use of Public Waters Rules, stating that motor boats cannot go more than 5 mph and internal combustion motors and personal watercrafts are not allowed.

H. 33 would also violate Vermont’s Sportsmen’s Bill of Rights, which serves to insulate anglers, hunters, trappers, and recreational shooters from frivolous attacks upon our traditions. In alignment with the nation’s public trust doctrine, the Bill of Rights is an added layer of constitutional protection for sportsmen. If passed, H. 33 would flout this right in the case of Berlin Pond but could set a precedent for other communities in the state as well.

UPDATE 3/13/15

Thanks to a strong response from Vermont’s sportsmen and women, the House Committee on Fish, Wildlife and Water Resources has decided not to advance a bill that would have banned fishing on Berlin Pond and potentially other bodies of water.

After learning of the Committee’s decision, Rep. Warren Kitzmiller (D-Montpelier), the bill’s champion, conceded “the ‘hooks and bullets boys’ have won one round.”

However, Vermont anglers will need to be vigilant. Because no vote took place, the bill can be reintroduced at another time. KeepAmericaFishing and our local partners – Lake Champlain International, Inc., Friends of Berlin Pond, and Vermont Traditions Coalition – will keep you informed of any new developments.