WESTMORE — Nude sunbathers at the Southwest Cove of Lake Willoughby have allegedly been aggressive this summer, the chair of the town’s select board said Wednesday, leading the board to schedule a meeting with the town’s attorney to discuss what, if anything, town officials can do.
Bill Perkins, chair of the Westmore Select Board, said the board decided to hold a special meeting with the town attorney Wednesday “to find out the legalities” on what the town can do about reports of nude bathers allegedly confronting hikers, people in kayaks, and others coming near the longtime nude beach.
People who use the beach on Wednesday said they have witnessed no such behaviors, and the group which uses the clothing-optional beach is respectful and peaceful.
A draft ordinance is beginning to be reviewed by the town, which states, in part, “The Selectboard of the Town of Westmore finds that regulation of public nudity and the other public conduct addressed in this ordinance is necessary to ensure that the negative secondary effects of such activities and behaviors will not adversely impact the health, safety, and welfare of the residents of the Town of Westmore.”
If the ordinance passes, public indecency would include a person knowingly or intentionally in a public place: engaging in sexual intercourse, appearing in a state of nudity, fondling his or her genitals or fondling the genitals of another person.
Fines starting at $160 for the first offense and increasing to $800 for a fifth offense are outlined in the draft ordinance, as well as waiver penalties that are lower, and would encourage people not to fight the tickets, the board was told.
A longtime town resident who grew up in the area, Perkins, 60, said the issue came to a head recently because there have been “Just so many complaints this summer, mostly there seems to be a group of people that are confronting mostly older women.”
Perkins said he’s had about 10 reports from people who say nude bathers at the Southwest Cove have approached older women and kayakers coming close to the beach telling them “either you take your clothes off, or get out of here!”
Users of the beach say that is flatly untrue.
The State of Vermont does not ban nudity at public beaches, but what Perkins said town officials are concerned with is “the harassment factor,” as he calls it.
“It’s come up so much,” Perkins said of the reports he’s personally heard this past summer. “I have a 93-year-old woman who told me they were posturing and preening and they kept making circles around her,” he said of one report.
Perkins said, “They don’t dare it to men.”
“They wait until they get an older woman,” who comes near the nude beach, said Perkins. “The thing is if I had heard it from one person it would be one thing, but I have heard it from at least ten people this summer. If they were just walking around naked, there’s nothing we would do, there’s nothing we could do, but when you get this type of thing, you can’t just turn your back on it.”
He said he does not believe that the Vermont State Police have been involved, saying, “Nobody is reporting it, because they aren’t physically being touched.”
David Timson, president of Friends of Southwest Cove, said of the alleged harassment issue and the meeting planned to discuss it on Wednesday, “The thing that gets me the most is why wasn’t it more out in the public?”
Of the reports Perkins said he’s heard, Timson said, “Not true at all.”
“I can’t say that for sure, but I’ve talked to the people who have been there all summer, they said no,” said Timson. He was at the beach three times this summer. “If it happened, people would let me know, but they haven’t let me know anything like that.”
Timson said, “I don’t understand what’s going on.”
Lt. Walter Smith, commander of the Derby station of the Vermont State Police, on Wednesday said he had not heard of any such complaints, and checked calls from June on. He said he only found one incident where an individual was throwing rocks, creating an annoyance. A trooper went to the lake and talked to the subject. “Other than that, nothing at the beach. We periodically get cases down there,” he said. “Usually it’s someone who is unaware that there is a nude beach down there.”
“I don’t know why they aren’t reporting it,” said Lt. Smith of the alleged harassment incidents Perkins noted. He said there could be lewd and lascivious conduct involved, and he’s not sure if people are violating the law or not. “If somebody is minding their own business, and someone is doing that, at the very least it could be disorderly conduct,” he said.
At the meeting Wednesday afternoon, Town Attorney Jim Barlow provided a draft of a public indecency ordinance, and warned the board that they must tread carefully to not impinge on protected First Amendment rights. He said secondary concerns raised by the public nudity at the beach can be addressed in an ordinance, and he outlined what would define public indecency, a fine schedule, and procedure. The offenses would be civil, not criminal, he explained.
Barlow said several Vermont municipalities have passed a public indecency ordinance, and the municipal ordinances have withstood court challenges. Towns which have such ordinances, he said, include South Burlington, Shelburne and Hartford.
“I don’t have all the answers to all of the questions everybody might have,” said Barlow. “The real emphasis or the real concern with this is we’re not acting as a government to restrict nudity … but to restrict the concerns that may potentially come out of that, such as people feeling unsafe in their community, or sexual assaults.”
Barlow encourgaged the board to have a more involved process of public involvement than with other ordinances because of the First Amendment issue and public interest in the subject; Willoughby has had a clothing optional beach for decades and the beach is well-known.
“This is not intended to regulate what goes on in people’s back yards or in people’s homes,” said Barlow.
Perkins, speaking to the handful of beach users at the meeting, said, “You guys probably are not the problem.” He said he has heard of at least 10 reports of women ages 40 to over 90 being allegedly harassed, including men laying down in front of them in a way that made them uncomfortable or blocking their paths when they go to leave.
“I don’t like bullying and I don’t like people trying to intimidate people,” said Perkins.
Shelah Vogel, of Newport Center, was at the meeting and said, “I’ve never seen anyone bully anyone, we are a tight-knit group, we clean up the trash. If someone goes there for the wrong reasons, we ask them to leave … Families and ministers and doctors go to the beach, it is not a bunch of lecherous perverts.” She said probably half the people who go to the Southwest Cove keep their clothing on, and that’s never a problem, saying, “I’m not a nudist.”
Perkins contacted Barlow several weeks ago to talk about the reports he said have come in over the summer.
One resident at the meeting demanded to know if there were letters of complaint to the select board, and Perkins answered the complaints have mainly been verbal.