Op-Ed: The “takeover” of Lake Ninevah

It was Patches Pond when my husband started going to Lake Ninevah with his parents. We purchased a plot in 1958. Blakely Beach was open to owners. We spent many happy days there. Vince Blakely, the owner, always had a wagon filled with children. He was known as the Pied Piper. The children loved gathering wood for the big bonfire on the 4th of July. Later a real road was put in and we were able to enjoy Lake Ninevah in the winter. You could not find a better place for children to spend their childhood.

The Blakelys sold all their land in 1961. Ken and Susan Webb on nearby Echo Lake recruited a group to buy it. They became the Wilderness Corp. Ken Webb was president. Vince continued running the lake for a few more years, but when he left Lake Ninevah experienced brunt changes. The Wilderness Corp put no trespassing signs on many properties, one being Blakely Beach. Many were very upset, especially the children.

The Webbs, Quakers, were nudist as were the group they recruited. They did not care others found nudity offensive. It was certainly not something we wanted for our children. The Wilderness Corp built outdoor educational camps at the suggestion of the Webbs. The ages of the children were 11-17. The camp’s philosophy was based on Quaker values. The children attending were also nudist. In the 1980s, a religious group wanted their children to attend the camps but found nudity offensive. They charged the owners with discrimination. It was not until 2009 that clothing was required.

The Wilderness Corp continued buying more land. They sold several plots to raise money for payments. The  plots sold had very strict covenants. Owners who did not comply with the rules faced lawsuits. In 2015, we were charged with encroachment by the Ninevah Foundation. Two years and $25,000 later, we gave them the controversial 0.0065 of an acre but maintained control of our 0.21-acre plot. We were surprised to learn, in a letter to us from the foundation lawyer, they were a nonprofit, tax-exempt, charitable organization. Supposedly we built on land they had opened for public use, land no one had been on in 60 years. We decided to find out more about the foundation and spent hours at the Town Office and on the computer doing research.

The Wilderness Corp started two more corporations, the Ninevah Foundation in 1995 and The Wilderness Inc. in 1996. The three corporations had different officers and addresses, but both new ones were nonprofit, tax-exempt, and charitable organizations. In 1996, The Wilderness Corp quitclaimed their gated community and the five beaches to the Wilderness Community, closing all access to the lake. In 2001, The Wilderness Corp quitclaimed all their property to the Ninevah Foundation. The Wilderness Corp dissolved.

The foundation received many grants from the State of Vermont and the Forest Legacy Program, which is a federal grant to protect forestlands from conversion to non-forest uses. The Vermont Department of Forests, Parks & Recreation joined forces with the USDA Forest Service, the State Lead Agency for Vermont’s Forest Legacy Program. The Forest Legacy priority is “providing opportunities for public outdoor recreation lands.” Recreation outdoor activities such as hunting, fishing, trapping, wildlife viewing, hiking, skiing, boating, swimming, camping, and others are provided on most agency lands.

The Forest Legacy Program pay owners market price for their land, but it remains in the owner’s name. In return the owner protects the forest lands and opens the land for public recreational use. This is done voluntarily and is irreversible. It has been good for Vermonters, one of the few states in the program, as many farmers whose land connects to the Green Mountains can create many recreational opportunities for the public. The Ninevah Foundation has received three of these  grants. We found one for $303,000 in 2002 but could not find the other two. They receive other grants to help with many projects. Solicitation for public donations also help pay expenses. Today the Ninevah Foundation owns 3,300 acres on the lake and surrounding areas.

The Ninevah Foundation has accomplished a great deal and are committed to preserving the lake and the land. They created the Mount Holly Wildlife Corridor protecting the bear habitat and wildlife, which has been deemed a notable achievement They care for the loons who have been on the lake for many years. According to one of their reports: “The Ninevah Foundation is dedicated to keeping Lake Ninevah and the surrounding area forever wild so the public can enjoy outdoor recreation.” We find it ironic that hundreds of thousands of dollars are spent for protecting bears and other wildlife while little is spent on public outdoor recreation programs. “Forest Legacy Programs are for all creatures including humans.”

Lake Ninevah is a valuable natural resource of the Mount Holly community and the state of Vermont. The foundation has received numerous grants from the state of Vermont and the Vermont Forest Legacy Program. Those who reside in the town, surrounding areas and the state, according to the Forest Legacy Program, should be the ones benefiting. “Public access is an important resource to Vermonters and is therefore required with conservation easements purchased with Forest Legacy funds. Recreation opportunities and the quality of life helps to make Vermont such a great place to live. Denying access prevents this from happening.”

Nonprofit charitable organizations must prove they are using their funds for those they have chosen to serve. The Ninevah Foundation refers to the now six outdoor education camps as a commitment to education. From the beginning, the camps were for a select group (Quakers who practiced nudity) thus eliminating all those who do not share these beliefs. Nonprofit organizations are encouraged to keep costs affordable. The charges for the various camp programs range from $2,850 to $8,225. Our bet is no local children or Vermonters are in attendance. The Foundation does offer educational programs at the Mount Holly library such as wildlife, trapping, invasive plants, and more.

Last year we questioned the vice president of the foundation how they can justify closing all access to the lake, preventing public use. His answer: “The state access is public.” A public organization cannot use the land owned by another public organization unless they receive legislative permission.

The small fishing access is paid for by the sportsmen and is for their use only. People using the access who are not fishing or hunting can be fined. Swimming at the access is not allowed and can result in a $162 fine. The access is very often filled with offenders and fishermen are turned away. Starting in 2001 the Ninevah Foundation hired greeters to check boats for milfoil. Greeters allow people not engaged in fishing to park and launch kayaks, canoes, paddle boards, and boats . The foundation is well aware of the rules and should inform the greeters they must be followed. The Forest Legacy Program realizes “Water Recreation represents a principal attraction or component of many if not most outdoor recreation activities and should continue to be a focus of the land conservation efforts.” As stated, denying access prevents this from happening.

Lake Ninevah has no parking area or bathroom facilities and none have been provided by the foundation. This prevents the public from enjoying all the activities advertised by the foundation on and off the lake. Land open to the public by the foundation is a well-kept secret. “A nonprofit, tax-exempt charitable organization needs to recognize the public must to some extent be entitled to use and enjoy the lake not as a favor but as a matter of right. A public charity is prohibited from getting more benefit than those they have chosen to serve.” This is not happening.

Does it make sense that for years officers and the board of directors of the Ninevah Foundation have met in Springfield, Mass., to make plans for a lake in Vermont? The majority of the members in the two corporations are from out of state. A new alliance has now been formed. Two foundation members represent Lake Ninevah and two members represent the Farm & Wilderness. If we want to save Lake Ninevah, we need a representative from the town and one from the state involved in this new alliance to insure the Vermont grants are being used correctly.

Is it too late to reclaim our lake? We hope not, but we can no longer sit back and do nothing.

Written by Ida Gage, Mount Holly, Vt.

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