WESTMORE — The perennial issue of the nude beach at Lake Willoughby’s Southwest Cove was not on the agenda for the Westmore Annual Town Meeting last week, but a question about what residents would like to see happen there - and if they would support an ordinance to restrict the clothing-optional activity there - was part of an opinion poll given out.
Last summer, multiple reports were made to the selectmen about people saying they were harassed at the clothing-optional beach, but police had no reports made to that effect.
A letter in the annual town report from the select board referenced the opinion poll, stating, “We will be having a meeting on the subject during the summer when most of the complaints happen. If any unwanted intimidation or harassment occurs at either beach, please report to the Sheriff’s department so we have a record of it.”
Select Board Chairman Bill Perkins, reached Tuesday, said of the recent opinion poll, “We haven’t even looked at it yet as the selectmen..”
He said input on the survey questions will be ongoing because, “I’ve got calls from summer people who own camps on the lake and stuff and they want to have their say.”
“I haven’t been in the office since Town Meeting, we haven’t looked at them at all,” said Perkins of the survey responses from the annual meeting last week.
Perkins himself remains concerned about the issue, he said. “I do have some stuff and some questions with our lawyer right now, I have a call into him right now, he’s looking over some stuff,” related to the nude beach concerns from last summer.
Perkins said, “It’s basically a bunch of stories people told me last summer about the harassment and stuff that went on and the lewd comments and stuff.”
“The people who were harassed and stuff, I don’t want them harassed more by that group, but I think people would be shocked by the amount of things that have happened down at that end, people just don’t talk about it, if they get harassed down there, and that’s just wrong,” said Perkins. “If those people want to go and buy their own private beach they should go and buy their own private beach.”
On the floor of town meeting last week, the meeting moderator asked the sheriff if they had had complaints from the beach, said Perkins, and there have not been complaints filed. Perkins said that does not mean people have not reported being harassed to town officials, and he’s received enough concerns that he thinks the time has come to control the situation.
Before last week’s town meeting, Perkins said in an interview that if the town’s select board ends up considering an ordinance it would not ban nudity so much but would ban it due to “the negative secondary effects of nudity.”
“You can’t ban nudity itself, but you can ban nudity because of the effects that it causes,” he explained.
In the fall, the select board held a special meeting with the town attorney to look at a draft ordinance that would ban nudity, but no action has happened since then.
Perkins said the select board - all three of whom favor such an ordinance - has heard from a few people since that October meeting, and those people “really want something,” in place to control the situation.
Last summer, Perkins said he received reports from multiple women who felt uncomfortable after being allegedly approached and harassed at the Southwest Cove.
People who use the nude beach, including Friends of the Southwest Cove President David Timson of St. Johnsbury, say they know of no such activity at the beach, and insist those who frequent the clothing-optional beach are peaceable and do not harass people.
Meeting on Issue This Summer
Perkins said what’s likely to happen with a possible ordinance being considered is a special meeting this coming summer.
An ordinance to control the nudity could either be adopted by the select board after being warned, or “you could have a town vote on it,” said Perkins. “The selectman could write an ordinance,” too, he said, and if there are concerns, voters could petition the board to take it to a vote to reconsider.
“We’re not that far along with it,” said Perkins of a possible ban on nudity because of its secondary effects at the Southwest Cove of Lake Willoughby. “People at Town Meeting may say they don’t care one way or another,” he said earlier.
Last week, Perkins said he hoped the issue didn’t come up on the floor under other business at the meeting’s end.
“This subject could turn into a two-hour thing, and really most people don’t want to go to town meeting and drag out a subject that’s long,” said Perkins. “That’s why we’re doing it this way, we don’t want it to turn into a whole day affair, and we don’t want a whole bunch of people showing up to fight it when there’s no fight up.”
Perkins said of the survey distributed last Tuesday, which also contained questions about trash disposal in town and road sand, “We’re hoping everyone will give us their opinion.”
The paper surveys were distributed to people as they arrived at the annual meeting last week, near the checklist, said Perkins.
Last week’s survey was a first for Westmore’s town meeting, said Perkins.
“We never have done this, I just came up with that idea,” said Perkins. “The other selectmen were happy to do it, we thought it was a good idea to get the feel of the townspeople … We’re hoping it works. If it works, then we’ll do it every year, and if we don’t anyone answering it we’ll say, ‘Well, that didn’t work!’ ”
Of the longstanding clothing optional Southwest Cove, Perkins said a lot of people are using the beach, but the practice makes many people uncomfortable.
“I just do not feel that the nude people would walk into Wal Mart naked, they wouldn’t walk into a school naked, and I don’t think naked old people and kids go together,” he said of the public beach area in Westmore. If they owned it or they owned a piece of land over there,” that would be one thing, said Perkins, but they don’t, he said, referring to the naturists. “It’s a public beach, it’s not a private beach.”
Perkins said, “A lot of the people in town don’t go to the beach, so they don’t care, but it’s the ones that have tried, and they’ve been flashed. I don’t know if I can call it flashing if you’re naked.”
A possible special meeting on the idea of an ordinance to ban the nude sunbathing may happen in July or August, “when more of the people who are affected are here,” said Perkins; Westmore’s population balloons with summer residents who own cottages and property in the town.
Of the nude beach poll, Perkins said, “That’s one of the questions on the 3-question opinion poll, asking if the townspeople want to pursue (an ordinance) at all.”