The bridge and the informal hand-carry boat launch, top center, into Lower Togus Pond, seen Wednesday on the south side of Route 105 in Augusta. The shoulder of road on both sides of bridge between the ponds is a popular spot to park vehicles to fish or launch boats. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

AUGUSTA — The state’s first fully accessible family fishing area is coming to Togus Pond.

A new state boat launch — and what officials said will be the state’s first fully accessible family fishing area — was approved by Augusta’s Planning Board Tuesday night, though not without objections during the online meeting. Numerous camp and homeowners expressed concern the improved public access will bring unwanted activity to the publicly-owned body of water.

Board members and state officials said the additional boat traffic on Togus Pond will be negligible because the new launch to be built on Hurley Lane, off South Belfast Avenue, will only have parking spaces for seven vehicles with trailers. In addition, they said, other improvements planned at the site will make an already popular fishing spot safer and more accessible for families and people with mobility problems, including those without a boat.

It will also provide a public boat launch on a body of water now only accessible to motor-boaters via a boat launch owned by the local lake association and accessed via a locked gate.

“We don’t have a facility like this in the state, that’s what we’re really excited about,” said Diano Circo, chief planner for the state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife. “We’ve been trying to get some kind of public access there for almost 30 years. We designed this facility from the ground up to be an accessible, family fishing place.

“It’s sort of already being used in that way. What we’re trying to do is clean up the site to make it safer,” he added. “We’re trying to give people access to a body of water they own.”

Numerous Togus Pond property owners objected — by email, by phone to city staff or via an online chat system — as the Augusta Planning Board debated the proposal for about two hours Tuesday.

The informal hand-carry boat launch, bottom right, into Lower Togus Pond, seen Wednesday on the south side of Route 105 in Augusta. There is a proposal to have seven parking spaces there and across the bridge on banks of Togus Pond at top left. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

They expressed concerns the new boat launch will bring unwanted additional motorboat and jet ski traffic to the pond. More traffic, some said, could bring the invasive milfoil into a water body that so far hasn’t been infested with the troublesome plant. Other concerns raised include boaters unfamiliar with the water body striking unseen rocks and increased pollution.

“It affects all of Togus Pond,” Robin Dobbins, who owns a South Belfast Avenue home near the project site, said in the online chat. “Less boats the better. Lots of waves coming with more boats.”

Circo said the local lake association, Worromontogus Lake Association, could request boat inspectors at the site to watch for boaters putting in with milfoil on their watercraft. He said that is something for which the state Department of Environmental Protection may provide some funding.

He also said there are more than 100 houses and camps on the pond, most of which have boats, so the addition of seven motorboats from the new launch would not be a significant increase to the number already operating there.

Residents also were upset the project went to the Planning Board in a Zoom video meeting, making it more difficult for them to weigh in. City meetings in Augusta have been taking place via Zoom due to the social distancing and mass gathering restrictions put in place due to concerns about the spread of the coronavirus.

“This should be tabled until you can have a public forum where residents of Togus Pond are able to voice their opinions,” pond property owner Greg Trask said in the online chat. “A lot of people do not know how to watch online or make contact with the planning board and most of us just heard about this today.”

At least one property owner on the pond expressed support for the project.

“My family have been on the lake since the 60s and I favor this plan,” Ernie Jost said in the chat. “The current use on the road is too dangerous. This will help.”

The South Belfast Avenue site is an area already used by fisherman, who now fish from the edge of the roadway, or launch canoes and kayaks by hand. Circo joked you can see how popular the fishing area is already by looking at all the fishing lures stuck in overhead power lines.

Geese swim Wednesday in Lower Togus Pond, past an informal hand-carry boat launch on the south side of Route 105 in Augusta. Joe Phelan/Kennebec Journal Buy this Photo

He said the new setup will be much safer, with fishing platforms, sidewalks and crosswalks.

The state Department of Inland Fisheries & Wildlife purchased four separate parcels, totaling about 40 acres, abutting both Togus Pond and Lower Togus Pond on both sides of South Belfast Avenue, which is also Route 105.

State officials, in application materials filed with the city, wrote that the land area near the Togus Stream Bridge where the site is located is currently used for vehicle parking, fishing and launching small boats at three unimproved boat launching sites and that heavy use has caused shoreline erosion. The application also notes the current use of the area creates a safety hazard due to roadside parking on the gravel shoulders and “uncontrolled pedestrian movements.”

Most of the development would take place on a wooded property on the north side of South Belfast Avenue, off Hurley Lane, a private dirt road that would be shared with an existing private residence.

The proposal would:

• Add a 24-foot wide boat launch, accessible by people with disabilities, for boats on trailers on Togus Pond with boarding floats and a new parking lot with room for seven vehicles and trailers.

• Provide two 12-foot-wide hand-carry boat launches, one each on Togus and Lower Togus, each with boarding floats.

• Add two parking areas with a total of 17 spaces to serve the hand-carry launches fishing areas and extending guardrails.

• Provide fishing platforms accessible by people with disabilities.

• Install sidewalks, crosswalks and casting platforms on both sides of the existing bridge.

• Reduce existing shoreline erosion with the new sidewalks as well as retaining walls.

Project plans do not include any buildings, but portable toilets would be provided on the site.

The work is expected to cost about $500,000, with 75% of the cost coming from federal funds, collected in taxes from sale of fishing and related equipment. The remainder will be paid for with state funds dedicated to improving access to public waters.

A recreational area is a conditional use in the zones where the site is located.

Planning Board member Peter Pare said he is an avid fisherman and has been waiting for years for access to Togus Pond. He offered to recuse himself from the vote but did not do so after other board members said that was not necessary.

“What I think is wonderful about this project is it’s going to be a family friendly area,” Pare said before the vote. “It’s going to be able to introduce a lot more people, kids, people with mobility issues to this area, and help kids appreciate the value of fishing and protecting waterways.”

The approval included allowing two of the parking lots to be built about 50 feet from the shore, a waiver of the normally required 100-foot setback. The board is allowed, under city zoning rules, to reduce the 100-foot requirement to 50 feet.

In a staff review of the proposal, Deputy City Planner Betsy Poulin writes that the trailered boat launch lot is water-dependent and allowing it to be 50 feet from the shore would help keep it away from a vernal pool and wetlands. The review also noted the hand-carry launch parking lot being within 100 feet of the shore would reduce the distance to the handicap accessible ramp, allow for better stormwater flow and provide separation from traffic.


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