WESTMORE, Vt. (AP) — For decades, the tiny, out-of-site beach at the south end of Vermont’s fjord-like Lake Willoughby has been known as much for its nudity as its views of the clear, cold lake. Now, regulars fear its charm could be the area’s undoing.
Concerned about the cars that park along the highway by the lake during summer, the state is offering a redevelopment plan that is being criticized by people who use the beach and the surrounding area. The plan includes clearing land to make way for parking, boardwalk trails and restrooms.
Dave Timson, of St. Johnsbury, who has been visiting the area that includes the beach for decades, said the plans would destroy the area.
“I understand why they say they need to do something, but I do not understand why they need to cut down four acres, maybe five acres of trees,” he said. “We’re supposed to be preserving the forest.”
When the state held public meetings about the plans last winter, some officials were shocked at the level of opposition. The outcry prompted the state to scale back the development plans.
It’s unclear how much land would need to be cut for the work, but Michael Snyder, commissioner of the Vermont Department of Forests, Parks and Recreation, said the original plan was aimed at making the area safer and reducing pollution from the highway reaching the lake. Now, people park wherever they can find space along the side of the highway.
“It’s a much loved place, locally, regionally, state-wide. It’s beautiful,” Snyder said. “It’s really quite something. It’s used a lot. There are increasing pressures that really need to be addressed. It’s not sustainable, it’s not sufficient as is.”
Shelah Vogel, of Newport Center, Vermont, said she fears the state’s proposal could turn the area into a state park that could eventually require paid admission, forcing out the skinny dippers.
“This beautiful natural setting, it kind of lends itself to that, just total freedom from stress and society, crowds,” said Vogel, who says she visits the beach daily the summer.
For decades, the tiny beach at the south end of Lake Willoughby, the 5-mile (8-kilometer), narrow body of water flanked by two steep mountains, located about 20 miles (32 kilometers) south of the Canadian border, has been a haven for people who like to frolic nude.
The nude beach users aren’t the only ones to frequent the area. There is a clothed beach closer to the highway, a boat launch and miles of hiking trails in the Willoughby State Forest.
Vermont has no state laws against nudity, although some communities have enacted anti-nudity ordinances. Famously, in 1971, Vermont’s most senior politician, Democratic U.S. Sen. Patrick Leahy, then the Chittenden County state’s attorney, wrote a memo for police about nude swimmers.
“On private land out of view of the public: The state has no legitimate interest and swimmers should be left alone,” the memo said.
The Lake Willoughby nude beach does have its critics. Bill Perkins, the chairman of the three-member select board that for the town of about 300, said he’s heard from women who felt uncomfortable walking at what is a public beach.
“The women trying to walk across the beach were being approached and just being talked to,” Perkins said. “They didn’t want to be talked to… they felt they were being intimidated into either take your clothes off or don’t come here.”
A decade ago an effort to enact a town ordinance banning nudity failed. Perkins said the idea still comes up occasionally, but there are no formal efforts underway now to ban nudity.
The beach users insist the area is clothing optional and people aren’t pressured to go nude. The draw, as it has been for decades, is Lake Willoughby’s beauty and reputation as an accepting place for nudity.
On a recent weekday afternoon during the first extended stretch of hot weather this season, Katelyn Comeau and Michael Zarnowski, of Thornton, New Hampshire, made the 90-minute drive to Lake Willoughby so they could enjoy the beach nude.
“I’m not a fan of tan lines, or needing to cover up,” Comeau said.
Zarnowski said Vermont’s laws are more relaxed than the neighboring Granite State.
“We can find places to swim naked in New Hampshire, but it’s just us by ourselves,” he said. “You can’t really be relaxed if people show up.”