By Ray Carbone
NEWBURY – A group of sports enthusiasts’ organizations and interested private citizens have filed a new appeal to the state’s decision to deny a wetlands building permit that would have allowed the construction of a public boat access facility on Lake Sunapee.
In papers submitted to the Sullivan County Superior Court in Newport on Oct. 10, William Howard Dunn, the attorney representing the groups, reaches back to the English common law that is the basis for the American judicial system and even ancient Roman law.
Those systems support the idea that some properties – like New Hampshire’s lakes – are held in a “pubic trust” by the state government. “(As) stewards of public waters, the state safeguards the right to use and enjoy public waters,” he quotes from a previous case; Dunn also notes state statues that direct the state to “control the use of public waters and the adjacent shoreline for the greatest public benefit.”
The attorney quotes from a 60-year-old Gilmanton lawsuit… and from a California case that found that members of the public ‘have standing to sue to protect the public trust.’
The issue of public access to Sunapee has been debated for more than 20 years. For some time, the state ‘s department of environmental services (DES) and its fish and game departments sought to build a facility to comply with the legal mandate that reasonable access be available to everyone. In 1990 the state purchased the former Wild Goose campground in Newbury and developed plans to construct a facility there.
But legal challenges from both the town and the Lake Sunapee Protective Association delayed the project for years. The opponents say there is sufficient public access to the lake (although not a state-owned/operated facility), and that dangerous traffic problems on Rte. 103 would result from using the Wild Goose land.
After years of administrative, legislative and court-related wrangling, it looked like the Wild Goose site would be developed. Then Gov. Chris Sununu announced last year that he was pulling the plug on the project because it had lingered unfinished for so long, causing widespread discord in the community. The move was opposed by the NH fish and game department but, not long afterwards, the NH Department of Environmental Services (DES) denied a request from fish and game official to extend it wetlands building permit for the site; for years, the five-year building allowance had been approved several times previously.
The local sport organizations (including the Sullivan County Sportsmen, the NH Bass Federation and the Mountain View Gun Club) joined with Gary Clark, author of The New Hampshire Fishing Guide, and others asking the DES to reconsider its ruling. But an officer with the DES’s wetlands board dismissed their appeal, stating that the groups lacked legal standing to question the decision.
Last August, Dunn filed the sports groups’ initial request, asking the court to overturn the state’s actions and force it to move ahead with building a public access facility on the Wild Goose land. At that time, he argued principally that the state had acted incorrectly and in opposition to its own legal responsibilities, bowing to political pressure.
In his latest filing, Dunn focuses more on the state’s actions based on long-standing legal precedents, as well as its own laws and regulations.
“By law, the nature of these things (that) are common to mankind – the air, running water, the sea and consequently the shores of the sea” are part of the public trust, he writes, quoting from a lawsuit filed by the National Audubon Society in California in 1983.
“This rule, that such land are held by the state in trust for the public at large applies to all states, as it was upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court,” Dunn adds. “New Hampshire came to hold the public trust in its waters and shoreline when it joined the union” (in 1776).
The attorney also quotes from a 60-year-old lawsuit filed in Gilmanton to illustrate that New Hampshire courts have recognized that common law rights are applicable to “private individuals.” The California case also found that members of the public “have standing to sue to protect the public trust.”
“The denial of the (wetlands building) extension is a breach of trust by the public trust,” Dunn concludes. “By refusing to grant the wetlands permit, the (state) has violated its own duty under, not just under (state) law but also under common law under the public trust doctrine.”
The legal filing asks the court to order the DES to grant the fish and game’s wetlands building permit extension to August 28, 2022, and to allow the sportsmen organizations to continue to be considered in future actions under the “public trust” doctrine.
In response, DES’s legal team did not object to the new filing, but it argued that the case had already been decided. In addition, the group said that it would appeal the court’s decision if the ruling goes against the agency.
At this time, there’s no indication when the court will issue its final ruling.
This story originally ran in the InterTown Record weekly newspaper, published in Sutton, New Hampshire, on Tuesday, October 23, 2018.