The demise of the Mountain Island Lake Marine Commission, a public advocate for the region’s largest water supply, seems certain by late June unless a last-ditch effort can save it.
In December, Gaston County said it will withdraw from the commission, effectively disbanding it. Officials cited differences with the marine commission that began with a controversial lake management plan in 2010, later tabled, to limit boat sizes and charge fees for people who use the 3,281-acre lake.
Now, N.C. Rep. Charles Jeter of Mecklenburg said he and Rep. John Torbett of Gaston are reaching out to people in both counties in an attempt to spark discussion that could keep the commission afloat in some form.
Mecklenburg, Gaston and Lincoln counties border the lake and appoint representatives to the seven-member commission, created by state legislation in 1997. If any county withdraws, the commission dissolves by law.
Although Jeter said he hadn’t spoken directly to Gaston County commissioners, “I think Gaston has legitimate concerns and legitimate issues.”
“I’ve talked to stakeholders up and down the river,” said Jeter, who represents House District 92 on the northwestern edge of Mecklenburg County. “I firmly believe both parties want the same thing for the lake. My hope is that we can get the two sides together and figure out something and that everybody can find a way to bend a little.”
Torbett hopes the two sides can “come to a mutual understanding and resolve this.”
Although the lake management plan, which included proposals for limiting boat sizes and charging fees for lake usage, was never passed by the commission, it planted seeds of discontent in Gaston.
“This didn’t happen overnight,” Jeter said. “It’s a longstanding issue.”
The commission is one of three that serve Mountain Island Lake, Lake Norman and Lake Wylie. Mountain Island Lake is the primary water supply for Charlotte, Gastonia and Mount Holly. The commissioners have limited authority, but work with lake manager Duke Energy, county agencies and the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission on water quality, shoreline issues and boating safety.
Gaston County commission Chairman Tracy Philbeck said he was willing “to talk to anybody about the issues.”
He said commissioners had been getting feedback from the public that the marine commission had strayed from its original mission of focusing on water quality and working with the N.C. Wildlife Resource Commission.
Some marine commission appointees live on the lake and “it turned into ‘this is our lake,’ ” Philbeck said. “It’s not a homeowners lake. It’s for all of us.”
He said one possibility for the marine commission was to “close it down and reorganize.”
Before the formation of the marine commission in 1997, individual counties managed matters affecting the lake.
Marine commission member Cathy Roche of Charlotte said Gaston County almost pulled out two years ago, but she thought the dissension was past and “we had answered everybody’s concerns.”
While the commission has limited authority “it plays a strong role in advocating public safety and environmental protection issues,” Roche said.
She thinks Jeter’s effort to save the commission is an excellent idea.
“The continuation of the marine commission is good for the lake and everybody who uses it,” said Roche. “It’s also good for the counties because it takes the burden of lake issues off them. Dealing with those issues takes up a lot of time.”
Marine commission treasurer Brian Weyeneth of Mount Holly cited three examples of the commission public safety efforts: loaning life jackets at boat landings; distributing boat safety pamphlets to public schools in Gaston and Mecklenburg counties nearest the lake; and helping to get bilingual anti-litter signs at landings, islands and trails.
He’s all for discussion about the commission’s future, but takes his lead from Gaston County and as treasurer is winding down the commission’s finances.
If the commission disbands, Weyeneth doesn’t see it coming back in its present form.
“It may come back as a volunteer group of people who use the water,” he said. “An ad hoc group of people who’ve got a heart for the lake.”
Former marine commission member Jerry Campbell of Gastonia recalled the dissent over the proposed lake management plan, calling it an effort by some “to push rules and regulations that exceeded what was needed.”
He hopes something positive will come out of the current controversy. If asked by county officials, Campbell said he and a group of 10 to 15 others would offer their expertise on the lake.
Campbell also hopes the three counties “will continue working with the lake to ensure things are planned properly and controlled properly. I hope they can come up with a plan and stay on the same page.”
Gaston’s withdrawal will be effective June 30. Commenting on that prospect, Mecklenburg County Commission Chairman Trevor Fuller said “it’s a matter of concern to us and we’re looking at what options we have.”
Meanwhile, Jeter hopes he and Torbett can convince all the parties involved to sit down together and talk about the issues.
“Our goal is to try and facilitate these conversations very soon,” he said.