Friday, March 7, 2014
By TREVOR MAXWELL
Staff Photo by Gregory Rec, Fri, Aug 09, 2002: A jet skier churns up the water where the Saco River becomes a lake behind the Skelton Dam in Dayton. The lake area is one of the few spots along the river where boaters and jet skiers can run at higher speeds. Along most of the southern course of the Saco River, water craft are required to move at no faster than headway speed, although that regulation is frequently ignored.
A state law that gives towns the power to ban personal watercraft on public lakes and ponds was upheld Thursday by Maine's highest court.
The decision comes just in time for summer, and ends a three-year legal quest by a Camden man. Mark Haskell intentionally challenged the law in 2005 when he bought a $13,000 Sea Doo personal watercraft and illegally used it on Lake St. George in Liberty, where he owns a camp.
Haskell argued that the Waldo County town of Liberty -- and other communities which have recently enacted bans -- have unfairly singled out personal watercraft, commonly known by the trade name Jet-Ski.
Haskell and his attorney, Michael Kaplan of Preti Flaherty in Portland, said the Legislature should have at least taken evidence about the impact of the vessels, before passing a law that allows local bans.
''The Legislature hadn't really considered the facts,'' Kaplan said Thursday. ''They were basically rubber stamping what the town did.''
But the Maine Supreme Judicial Court rejected those arguments. The seven justices found that the Legislature did have a rational basis for establishing the law in 2003, and lawmakers were not obligated to review specific evidence.
''Given the unique characteristics of personalized watercraft, their size, speed and maneuverability, the Legislature could rationally determine that they pose a unique risk to others on great ponds,'' Justice Donald Alexander wrote.
''The public has a right to use great ponds. This right, however, is not fundamental, and is inherently subject to legislative restraints,'' Alexander wrote.
''Haskell failed to meet his heavy burden of establishing that there is no rational basis for the legislation.''
Lakes and ponds larger than 10 acres are owned collectively by the people of the state. Nearly 3,000 bodies of water in Maine fall into that category.
The machines are banned on about 60 of those lakes and ponds in populated areas of Maine, and hundreds more in unorganized territories.
Haskell received a summons on July 3, 2005, when he took his Sea Doo out on Lake St. George. He appealed the ticket, and a Waldo County Superior Court judge ruled in Haskell's favor last fall, saying the law needed clarification. The case went to the Maine Supreme Judicial Court, which heard arguments on April 10 in Portland.
Haskell could not be reached for comment Thursday. Kaplan said he will have to pay the original civil penalty of $100. Sarason Liebler, a former chair of the planning board in Liberty, and a member of the lake association for Lake St. George, was pleased with the court's decision.
Liebler initially refused to support a ban on personal watercraft, but changed his mind when he heard the perspectives of lifelong residents. Swimmers, canoeists, kayakers and even people who owned motorboats were using the lake less because they feared collisions with personal watercraft, Liebler said.
He said there has been much broader use of the lake since the ban went into effect in 2003.
''I'm not saying the lake should be reserved for people who are 'tree-huggers,''' he said. ''When one usage takes away from all of the others, it's a problem.''
Staff Writer Trevor Maxwell can be contacted at 791-6451 or at: