WESTMORE — It’s a little too cold now for swimming - with or without a bathing suit.
But the Westmore Select Board is not done with its consideration of banning nude sunbathing come next beach season at popular Lake Willoughby’s Southwest Cove.
That beach, secluded and accessed by a walk through the woods and down a set of stone steps, has been a clothing-optional beach for decades.
Every so often, controversy over the nude beach bubbles up, and that happened this past summer, with allegations coming to the town’s selectmen over women being bullied by naked sunbathing men.
Those allegations led the board recently to meet with the town attorney to consider a draft public indecency ordinance for the Town of Westmore that would put an end to the clothing-optional beach enjoyed by the naturists – the term naked sunbathers prefer.
Bill Perkins, the select board chair, said this week that the issue will most likely be addressed in a letter from selectmen to be included in the annual Town of Westmore report, and will be a discussion item from the floor at the annual meeting in early March.
Once the board takes a pulse on the citizen position on the issue, there will likely be a special meeting at which the warned public indecency ordinance would allow for public input, then a passage of time during which it could be challenged by voters if enough signatures are gathered on a petition, Perkins explained.
James W. Barlow, Westmore’s town attorney, whose practice, Vermont Local Government Law, is based in Plainfield, said there are a number of towns and cities in Vermont which have public indecency ordinances on the books.
Among the other communities which have adopted ordinances around public indecency are the City of South Burlington and the Town of Hartford, both based on cases involving businesses, SBC Enterprises, Inc., in the first instance, and White River Amusement Pub, Inc., v. Town of Hartford in the latter.
On the FindLaw website, which sums up legal language state-by-state, Vermont’s laws are distilled in this explanation: “While Vermont will not punish those that want to gallivant around their city’s streets in the buff, if these people decided to act in lewd and lascivious ways while nude, then Vermont’s peace officers may make an arrest. Lewd and lascivious conduct can be best defined as acting with a purpose of sexual arousal, gratification or offending another. Violators of this crime can face some prison time and fines. If the lewd act is performed in front of a person 16 years old or young, the sentence minimums increase dramatically.”
Barlow said, “The Town (Westmore) can pass an ordinance regulating public nudity. I would estimate that a dozen or more Vermont municipalities presently have an indecency or nudity ordinance.”
Perkins said most of the complaints he’s received were from people he saw around town, and they are not in writing.
One letter was received recently, and was noted in the minutes of a recent select board meeting.
The letter came from a man who brought his family on vacation to the Northeast Kingdom this past summer, and stumbled upon the naked beach and was shocked.
Andrew T. Harrison, an attorney from Tulsa, Oklahoma, wrote to Perkins on Oct. 19, in support of the proposed ban “… of the offensive exhibitionists who congregate on Lake Willoughby every year to frolic nude within public view during vacation season, where I happened to be this past July with my wife and two young children, ages 8 and 3 (boy and girl, respectively).”
“It seems axiomatic to point out in this letter why banning these individuals (almost exclusively middle-aged+ men) who gratify themselves through public display of nudity is long-overdue and represents a positive direction for this beautiful vacation area,” Harrison wrote.
His letter went on, “The torts of outrage, civil sexual assault, intentional or negligent infliction of emotional distress against (the town of Westmore) all come to mind immediately when I think about the occasions when I have frequently encountered ‘the nudes’ when hiking with my family around the lake, to include our two small children and my 80-year-old mother.”
“During our vacation last summer while hiking the trail around the Lake, I was keenly aware of the lack of any signage whatsoever that would provide proper Notice to a family that they are about to encounter a band of penises on full-display just around the next bend,” wrote Harrison.
Harrison asked, “If the (town) is reluctant to completely ban this practice in public, why not place signs on the trail notifying hikers that there is a nude beach just ahead chock-full of middle-age men who are consuming alcohol, smoking marijuana and gratifying themselves, publicly, through raw display of exhibitionism? There is no good answer I can think of and if you have one, I would love to hear it.”
He continues in his letter stating if town officials don’t take action he and his family will not return for vacation and the town’s failure to address “the nudes” will impact tourism.
When the draft ordinance was first reviewed in a public meeting on Oct. 4, the town’s zoning administrator, Andy Berley asked the board how they would enforce the ordinance, which would be punishable by a schedule of increasing fines for repeat offenders.
The ordinance would prohibit the nude sunbathing, said Perkins, “That’s what it is, and it’s not because of the nudity, it’s because of the secondary effects of the nudity.”
Perkins said a letter to the editor of a local weekly referenced how the naturists police the Southwest Cove and ask people to leave, which he said he’s heard multiple accounts of.
That letter noted how “a young guy with clothes on went in (to the Southwest Cove) and said, ‘Where are all the hot chicks?’ and they kicked him out and told him never to come back. It’s like, okay, who gave you police powers down there?” Perkins asked. “They don’t seem to think they’re doing anything wrong by kicking people out. They seem to think they own the beach and that’s where people in town are getting so upset that this group has taken control. If someone tried that at the North Beach, the cops would be there in a minute.”
The head of the Friends of the Southwest Cove group, David Timson, was at the select board meeting last month where a handful of naturists spoke about the possible ordinance and said their group is peaceful, cares for the environment, and that reports of alleged aggressive behavior are untrue.
This isn’t the first time a public indecency ordinance has been proposed by Westmore’s town fathers.
“The last time there was a meeting on it, it was a pretty close vote, but basically it came down to at that time there was one selectman who was a closet beach nudie, he was a well-respected selectman, he was a good guy, but after the fact, it came out that he was one of them down there,” said Perkins.
There had been a special town meeting on the issue a few years back, but Perkins couldn’t say just when.
Perkins said all three selectmen believe it’s time for a public indecency ordinance in Westmore, but ultimately, it will be in voters’ hands.
Perkins said, “My main thing is for such a good-sized lake, we really only have two public beaches.”
Sen. John Rodgers, D-Essex-Orleans, represents Westmore in the Legislature, and concurred with Perkins, saying this week, “I think that they get a lot of complaints and over the years, I have got them as well. I think the hope of many is that when the state fixes the place up, the nudies will go somewhere else. Many people have been harassed by the nudists who think that it is there private beach.”
The state has plans to add parking and sanitary facilities and upgrade trails at the south end of Lake Willoughby next year, a plan that has drawn mixed reaction.
A great deal of public input has come in over the plans to the local Agency of Natural Resources in St. Johnsbury, including some comments regarding the nude beach that has long been part of the Southwest Cove at Lake Willoughby.
The state conducted a survey to ask for input on the improvement plans.
Some people objected to the nude beach, while some were okay with it, a review of all the comments showed.
“This smells like a grab by the state to change the state forest to a state park. I know many who do not want a state park,” the same writer stated in their anonymous survey. “We are not bothered by the nude beach!”
Another survey respondent asked state officials to “take steps to eliminate nude bathing in the cove,” this one completed by Gordon and Sandra Olson of Westford, Mass.
Arthur Brooks, a visitor to Willoughby and a professor emeritus in the department of biological science and center for Great Lakes Studies at the University of Wisconsin, wrote to the state saying, in part, ” … (W)ith respect to the waterfront, I am sure that you will receive many negative comments concerning the ‘clothing optional’ beach. I hope that this issue will not be a driving force that prevents a well thought out plan for improving the area,” wrote Brooks. “The beach has existed for decades without causing problems for the majority of folks using the area. Just as clothing is optional an optional trail could be provided out of sight of the beach.”
Brooks, who is president of the Westmore Association, said he was making his comments as a citizen, and not in the role as president of the association.
Diane Lehder, whose family has summered at Willoughby for generations, raised concerns about some experiences related to the nude beach, including two middle-aged nude men approaching herself and a female relative, and another flashing her family once.
But many people believe reports of allegedly inappropriate behavior are either untrue or being exaggerated.
John Hagman, a Plainfield resident, said this week, “I am extremely skeptical of reports of harassment of clothed boaters by nudists at Willoughby beach. In my years at Goddard College and the decades since, I have some experience with clothing-optional swimming and have never seen or heard of such behavior.”
“Compared to the usual clothed beach scene, it seems a more civil crowd in fact,” Hagman went on. “I suspect one or two isolated incidents involving disturbed individuals have been grossly exaggerated by the squeamish and the usual gossip effect. It is offensive to indict the thousands of peaceful nudist taxpayers who have used the beach for decades because of such isolated hearsay ‘evidence.’ It is even more offensive to assume clothes will somehow suddenly make the uncouth peaceful.”
Hagman said, “Vermont has a long tradition of tolerance that is not under fire by out-of-state forces of morally crusading, intrusive government of which this imbroglio frankly reeks.”
“Myself, I’d like to see the money these bathers spend continue to flow to Vermont businesses rather than fleeing to places more tolerant and financially savvy. State law has long allowed appropriate nudity and I’m embarrassed to see things like this trying to impose foreign, repressive ideas that aim to make criminals out of peaceful hippies.”