Otter Tail County’s next sheriff to face escalating demands of policing lakes and waterways

Three sheriff candidates wade into troubled, turbulent waters of lakeside fireworks; large on-the-lake pontoon parties
These three Otter Tail County sheriff candidates will square off in the primary election August 14. The two top vote-getters will be on the ballot for the November general election.
From left, at a candidate forum hosted by the Otter Tail County Coalition of Lake Associations meeting July 19 in Ottertail:

Otter Tail Chief Deputy Barry Fitzgibbons
Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby
Fergus Falls Police Chief Kile Bergren
Pontoon parties--some operating formally under special Otter Tail County lake event permits; and some entirely informal gatherings of dozens of watercraft on sandbars and shallows–are an increasing phenomena on area lakes.
Enterprising promoters, such as Marine dealer U Motors and Lakeaholics Clothing, have hosted commercially advertised parties on area lakes–such as a July 2 event on Pelican Lake across from Fair Hills Resort, featuring a live band performing on a pontoon.

Smoke on the water; fire in the sky; and rock and roll on the docks, boats and beaches.

Fireworks over the lakes; and pontoon parties on the sandbars and in the shallows were among the issues raised for Otter Tail County Sheriff’s Department candidates recently.

In the wake of a midweek 4th of July, with lakeside fireworks activity that continued multiple days on some lakes–public safety, lake environment and noise pollution complaints appear to have increased this summer.

Meanwhile, informal, sandbar gatherings of dozens of pontoons and boats–coupled with alcohol and loud music–are escalating in the lakes area.

Also, formal parties on the water–promoted by private businesses and operated under a special county lake event permit–are also on the rise.

Folks are having lots of fun on and near Otter Tail County waters.

But for other folks, on and near lakes and waterways, fireworks and loud parties aren’t exactly their concept of “fun.”

“Our phones are ringing off the hook,” said Otter Tail County Sheriff candidate Barry Fitzgibbons.

Perham Police Chief Jason Hoaby; Fergus Falls Police Chief Kile Bergren; and Otter Tail Chief Deputy Fitzgibbons–all three running a primary race for sheriff–addressed these and other lake-related topics July 19. They participated in a candidate forum, hosted by the Otter Tail County Coalition of Lake Associations.

Minnesota law restricts fireworks that rise high in the air, said candidate Hoaby.

Consequently, “most fireworks around the lakes are illegal,” said Hoaby.

“If somebody complains, we will step in to ticket and confiscate,” said Hoaby. “And, quite often, there is alcohol associated with fireworks. If there’s an issue, it will be addressed…but with 1,000 lakes in the county, law enforcement can’t be everywhere at once.”

Sheriff candidate Kile Bergren commented, “we’ve taken a laxed view of fireworks, and it’s something on which we need to take a tougher stance.”

Bergren, who worked water patrol in Becker County previously in his career, noted that a man lost his hand in a fireworks incident in Becker a number of years ago–and fire risks also pose a public safety hazard.

“We have a culture of fireworks,” said sheriff candidate Fitzgibbons. “But we have 2,200 square miles to cover. If we get calls, we respond–but we have to prioritize.”

Fitzgibbons acknowledged that fireworks enforcement “should be revisited.”

“We do confiscate and cite occasionally, but it’s a little lax,” said Fitzgibbons. “We have a big county.”

As far as on-the-water parties, candidate Hoaby said “a party on a lake, or a party on land, should be handled the same way.”

Fergus Chief Bergren said some “sandbar” parties in Detroit Lakes exceeded 100 watercraft in a small area. Even on smaller lakes, there are increased party activity, he noted.

“If it is something we’re seeing on our small, less developed lakes––imagine the problem on larger recreational lakes,” said Bergren, who advocates more fully certified officers with the water patrol–with the authority to write tickets and make arrests.

“We’re so lax in enforcing certain laws,” said Bergren, suggesting that the county needs to be “more proactive from the beginning.”

Along with the water parties comes underage consumption of alcohol, noted Bergren.

Further complicating the enforcement challenges, noted Fitzgibbons: “People are in swim suits, they don;t have their identifications and license.”

“We’re seeing these parties escalating…snowballing. And we’re getting more calls from different lakes than we have in the past,” said Fitzgibbons.

As many as 800 people have congregated at some of the gatherings, said Fitzgibbons. “We’ve been fortunate so far-but the law of averages tells us that something terrible is going to happen.”

These increasingly large gatherings are a relatively recent phenomenon and, in part, are attributed to the rapid communication of social media, text, Twitter and Facebook, suggest some law enforcement officers.

Discussion of on-the-water parties, bars on the water, fireworks and other law enforcement-related issues are expected to start at the county board meeting August 7, with retiring sherriff Brian Schlueter. He will be on the agenda with the Otter Tail board, noted Commissioner Wayne Johnson, who represents the Pelican, Lida and Lizzie lakes area–and the greater Pelican Rapids area.

From Lida to Pelican to Otter Tail; fireworks, pontoon parties raise environmental–and noise pollution concerns

Most people living around the Otter Tail County lakes area are more-or-less forgiving about illegal fireworks displays over the lakes and pastures–if it is only one or two nights a year.

But combined with increasingly loud and populous “on the water” parties, complaints and incidents have been on the rise.

Following are a few incidents and issues that have been raised in recent weeks.

• On Lake Lida, the wind direction was perfect–perfect for fireworks debris to land in an avid gardeners vegetable patch.

Lots of debris– reported one Lake Lida Property Owners Association official.

• A Pelican Lake property owner reported more than 90 boats and pontoons–along with beer guzzling partiers– confined in part of the lake; complaining about boaters “going out on the water to drink their brains out.”

• Another Pelican Lake owner said he had no issue with fireworks once a year, but intense parties of dozens of boats are another matter. Plus, there have been incidents of encroaching on private property.

• Commercial event permits for water events were at one time aimed primarily at water ski exhibitions or water equipment demonstrations, according to Otter Tail Chief Deputy Barry Fitzgibbons, but are now being written for enterprising party planners. They partner with professional caterers, serving food and alcoholic beverages on the water, and booking live bands and disc jockeys to perform on pontoons.

• On the bright side, with the formally organized and permitted parties, the permits include a time limit–such as 3-8 p.m.

This was the case with the “Rock Out with your Dock Out” party July 2 on Pelican, across from Fair Hills–which was promoted by Fargo marine dealer U Motors, Fargo and DJ’s Docks & Lifts, Fergus Falls. Similar events have been promoted on Lida and Otter Tail Lake. With the informal, sandbar parties–the partying continues well into the night, said a Pelican Lake property owner.

• A Pelican Rapids Press reader, and 50 year resident in the McDonald Lakes chain area, wrote “the amount of fireworks that were shot off in the surrounding area…was like a war. It is obvious that nearly all of these fireworks are shot over water…If only a fraction of what litter I found in my yard is now deposited in the lakes, think of the amount of not only remnant parts must be there, but remnant chemicals.”

• After researching on the internet, she learned that fireworks are a major concern, “not only for the pollution resulting from the fireworks but concern regarding the disruption of bird health, which would include birds like eagles, loons and nesting purple martins, to name a few. Other concerns we already know… bothering veterans, dogs, and safety issues.”

• Some lake associations are small, tight-knit and cohesive enough that neighbors circulate Facebook posts, emails and texts to politely inform neighbors their fireworks plans. This seems to be successful on Sand Lake, for example, but not as likely on larger recreational lakes like Pelican, Lida, Lizzie and others.