Harbormaster: A public servant, not a policeman

By Gail Geraghty
Staff Writer

THE FRIENDLY WATERS — Harrison Harbormaster Gary Pagel stands in the town’s pontoon boat, used by him as well as the fire and rescue departments. (Geraghty Photo)

HARRISON — One of the first things Gary Pagel realized when he took on the job of Harrison’s Harbormaster a year ago, was that the town had a really good set of rules regulating moorings in the town’s two water bodies, Crystal and Long Lakes.

The problem was, enforcement under his predecessor had been inconsistent, and mooring records at the town office were a mess.

So Pagel was given a simple charge: bring the moorings into compliance with the ordinance so it can do what it was designed to do: ensure the safety and maneuverability of boats at the shoreline, and protect the rights of shorefront property owners.

It’s been a process of education, both for him and the public, and so far, he hasn’t had one case where he’s had to enforce the ordinance by seizing the mooring ball and hauling an errant boat to the town dock.

“What I want to do is work with the people and be as courteous as I can be, explaining what the ordinance states, in black and white,” said Pagel, who works for United Ambulance and divides his 20-22 hours as harbormaster between the three p’s — talking to people, patrolling and paperwork. “We don’t want to be a police town, Harrison is the Friendly Village.”

His tasks in his first year on the job have been concentrated on identifying exactly where all of the moorings are located, improving the written mooring application to provide more information and then personally contacting all 500 or so mooring owners, both residents and non-residents.

He reminds them that they have to fill out their applications each and every year in order to keep their moorings, or risk having them considered abandoned by the town. Those who had moorings in 2009 or 2010 and did not apply in 2011 are especially targeted for courtesy calls by Pagel.

“We’re talking probably around 200 people. Some plead ignorance; they weren’t aware they had to apply every year,” he said.

The application has been improved to identify multiple boats of each mooring owner, their registration number, color and length. Shorefront property owners are entitled to one mooring for every 50 feet of shorefront and must be located in the Shorefront Mooring Zone within 100 feet of shore. Those with a deeded right-of-way to either lake are entitled one mooring that must be located in the Designated Mooring Zone, between 100 and 200 feet from the shoreline — which sometimes places the mooring in front of a shorefront property owner’s space and has caused some complaints.

“Do I like putting people in the DMZ in front of peoples’ houses? No, but it’s their right,” Pagel said. When people complain, he calmly explains the rules, calling at times on his 36 years as a salesman of wholesale electrical supplies. Each DMZ mooring has to be 80 feet apart to provide maneuverability, so sometimes there’s no other choice, he said.

That’s especially true in coves, said Pagel, where the mooring zones are shaped more like a pie than a rectangle. “That’s where we’ve had the trials and tribulations of a harbormaster,” he said. He draws it out on a piece of paper for the complaining shorefront owner, and once they see it on paper, most realize they don’t have as much room as they thought.

“You have certain people who say, ‘I’ve been here for six years,’ well, it doesn’t matter,” he said. If the mooring locations don’t comply with the ordinance, they must be changed so that they do; lax or inconsistent enforcement in the past is no excuse.

“I listen to the complainant and the complainee, and somewhere in the middle is the truth,” said Pagel.

He uses the town’s pontoon boat or a borrowed jet ski to patrol the moorings in Long Lake. The pontoon boat isn’t ideal for getting in close to DMZ moorings to check their GPS coordinates, but “beggers can’t be choosers,” he said. At Crystal Lake, where he owns a home, he uses his own Malibu ski boat, marked with a harbormaster sign. If he comes upon a mooring with numbers that don’t match the spreadsheet he carries, he gives the owner of the boat a courtesy call.

“I give people the courtesy of a grace period” of two weeks to come into compliance, he said. “I’m not wanting to be a jerk.”

One area where Pagel has concentrated his efforts is the Town Harbor at Long Lake, which has around 10 non-shorefront owner resident moorings, two marinas with about five moorings each, and around five moorings owned by David Fifield, who sells boats. Marina owners are not allowed to rent their moorings; rented space must be at the marina’s docks.

“We are rapidly running out of space with which to put additional moorings out there,” he said. He may be able to squeeze one or two more moorings for non-shorefront owners in the harbor, but so far there’s not been a waiting list of residents asking for them. Some of the newer DMZ moorings in the harbor are located quite a distance from shore, so that their owners have to paddle out almost all the way to the channel markers 500 feet from shore.

In addition to the town harbor, a non-shorefront owner may be able to moor their boat on either of the town’s two lakes by getting written permission of a shorefront owner to access the lake over their property. He said some shorefront owners do that in order to have access to both lakes.

Pagel said he enjoys his job, because most people appreciate having the rules explained to them. He tells them the mooring ball has to be white with contrasting colors, and needs to be replaced in the fall with a “winter” ball that lies two feet under the surface so snowmobiles won’t hit it. Or, they can simply drop the chain to the bottom. The moorings shift a bit when the ice melts, and that’s why periodic checking of the GPS coordinates is important.

“As I said before, the harbormaster officer does not want to be a police officer. The harbormaster wants to be a friend to the people who want to boat safely in the town of Harrison.”

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