Corbin H. Crable
[email protected]

Gardner Lake residents, with prepared statements in hand, filled the city council chambers on June 21 to address the Gardner City Council’s  potential changes to the lake’s land use policies.

At issue is the city’s enforcement of ordinances that prohibit construction of structures like fences and sheds. Docks are the only structures currently allowed by law. Other items that have been installed on the land, most of which is owned by the city of Gardner, “block the city’s use of the fringe area where they have encroached onto the fringe,” according to a memo from City Administrator Stewart Fairburn.

In addition to the concerns about installation of structures on city-owned property, Fairburn said many residents have expressed a desire to purchase the land for themselves, but no related ordinance or written policy has been constructed.

The council has two options regarding land use at the lake: either follow current regulations and remove illegal structures such as fences or sheds, or grandfather in such structures on city property and charge annual fees to the owners of the structures.

The policy also would address other issues that have been points of contention among Gardner Lake residents and the city and county for years, including approving lot line adjustments for houses built on city property, the addition or removal of dirt, prohibiting the planting or removal of trees, and prohibiting water from being drawn from the lake.

Gardner Lake residents shuffled to the podium one after another during the hourlong public comments period, some with written statements to be delivered to the council.

Many complained about what they described as an “adversarial” relationship between themselves and the city.

“For a long time there has been a rift between the city and the lake residents,” said Suzie Townley of the Gardner Lake Association, who added that she believes the policy changes would harm the lake and its residents. “Our input is not considered valued or necessary.”

The fees the city may charge in the upkeep of certain structures – including the lake’s sea walls – will be a financial burden on some people on a fixed income as well, Gardner Lake resident Janet Pringle said.

“I’m starting to wonder whether we’re in China or the United States,” Pringle said to a round of applause from the audience. “You do not have the right to arbitrarily ruin our properties and our lives. The inadequacies of your budget are not our fault. The final determination will have to be in court.”

Denise Campanella, whose mother lives on the lake, said she will be hard-pressed to be able to afford additional fees.

“But she has no choice,” Campanella noted. “If she doesn’t have a sea wall, the lake will be in her living room. She’s on a limited income.”

Gardner Lake resident Marshall Marley was more blunt in his criticism of the proposed changes.

“It’s my assumption that you want to dry up the lake to get rid of the trailer trash,” he said.

Gardner Lake resident Karen Barber said she and other lake residents simply wish to work with the city in resolving the issues that have plagued their relationship in years past.

“We believe that what is behind our house is our own backyard,” Barber said. “How would you feel if someone gave you a memo saying your backyard isn’t yours?”

Gardner Mayor Dave Drovetta thanked all who commented and said the issue arose from dealing with a lake resident who had to tear down the deck attached to his house so a water holding tank could be installed; he now faces problems in constructing a new deck over the tank.

The resident told Drovetta he wanted more consistent policies dictating the land use.

“When you’re working from the point of view of a regulatory body, it becomes challenging,” he said. “Do we say docks are OK but fences are not? We have to look at this objectively and strip away the emotion.”

Fairburn addressed most of the comments regarding the city’s handling of its property on the lake. He said the city tries to do maintenance work on some of the roads at the lake, but that rains have washed it away. He also said the removal of silt, which at least one resident addressed at the meeting, “has been on the city’s list of things to do for a long time.”

Fairburn said the city tries to monitor the lake property but also has to rely on resident complaints about other maintenance issues, such as the removal of trees.

“If anyone wants to cut one down, the city doesn’t know about it until someone calls and complains,” he said.

Fairburn added that the proposed lease fees for structures other than docks will do nothing to help balance the city’s budget, and that the city isn’t trying to get rid of lake residents.

“We want people to enjoy the property out there, because it is beautiful,” he said.

Lake residents and the council have decided to form a task force to address the proposed land use changes. Council member Brian Broxterman will represent the council in the group, which also will include Gardner Lake Association members and officials from the county and the Planning Commission. Fairburn plans to update the council on the creation of the task force and its discussions at the governing body’s July 6 meeting.

The council will next meet for a special budget work session at 6:30 p.m. Monday, June 28, at City Hall, 120 E. Main.