Rule may change at lakes

After more than 30 years, Mecklenburg County is considering lifting a ban on swimming at its public parks on Lake Norman, Lake Wylie and Mountain Island Lake.

With high gas prices preventing people from traveling far for vacations, the county's Park and Recreation Department is investigating how it can provide people with fun closer to home, said department spokesman Mike Cozza. Two weeks ago, it began studying what it would need to do to allow for swimming again.

Park and Recreation expects to complete the study this fall. Then Mecklenburg County commissioners would have to approve it, along with Duke Energy, which owns the lake.

If approved, the change wouldn't go into effect until next summer.

“We do recognize swimming is a recreational issue that to some people is out of reach,” Cozza said.

Public access has long been an issue for the Catawba River and its lakes. Development has left only a small percentage of Lake Norman and Lake Wylie shorelines open to the public, and the only swimming beach is on Lake Norman.

That leaves most access to people with lakeside homes or boat owners.

On Sunday, Emelia London, 32, was at Ramsey Creek Park with her five children. They come at least once a week, she said, since gas is too expensive for them to travel to North Carolina's beaches.

The family is originally from Tampa, Fla., and is used to open beaches. London's kids feel penned in here, she says.

“It would be really nice if my kids could stick their feet in the water without getting screamed at,” London said. When park officials see people wading, they tell them to get out of the water. Signs warn that swimming is not allowed.

The study will examine whether the county should add facilities like restrooms and dressing rooms, create roped-in areas, hire lifeguards or allow people to swim at their own risk, said Cozza.

The study would also try to estimate the cost of the change and whether to charge people to swim.

Liability was the primary concern when the ban was created in the 1970s, following a rash of drownings.

Mecklenburg County commissioner Karen Bentley, who represents the area, says opening up areas all along the lake could boost local tourism.

“If we can keep people here locally, and eating at our local places, it's better,” said Bentley. “I'm certainly an advocate of it. We have a tremendous resource.”

The Lake Norman Chamber of Commerce has been pushing the Park and Recreation Department to lift the ban for more than a decade.

According to Cozza, the areas under consideration for swimming include Ramsey Creek Park, Jetton Park and Blythe Landing at Lake Norman; the Latta Plantation Preserve at Mountain Island Lake; the McDowell Nature Preserve and Copperhead Island at Lake Wylie.