WESTMORE, Vt. (AP) – From the beach of Lake Willoughby’s Southwest Cove, the sheer cliffs of Mount Pisgah tower over the deep, frigid water. Across the narrows, the peak of Mount Hor completes the look of a Scandinavian fjord.

In the summertime, the beach offers a different view: naked sunbathers. Southwest Cove is one of the most famous nude beaches in the country, but there’s a move under way to make people put their suits back on.

For decades, people have come to visit the beach, which is listed in nudist guides and on Web sites, but isn’t visible from the highway.

All are welcome, naked or not, and cameras without permission and sexual behavior are forbidden by the regulars. It’s on public land and the state – which has no laws banning public nudity – knows it’s there, and advises visitors on a sign at a trail head that leads to it warns “be advised, you may encounter nude bathers.”

But some Westmore residents want to be able to use the beach without having to worry they or their kids will have to confront a naked person, most commonly a middle-aged man.

They’re asking the town to pass an anti-nudity ordinance.

“For me, it’s about common public decency, getting families and kids and people and Westmore back down to what they all talk about as being the most beautiful place and they don’t go there any more,” said resident Tony Strange, who lives about a half mile from South Cove.

He helped circulate a petition asking the Select Board to enact the ordinance.

Regulars say the nude beach is an accepted part of the area that doesn’t cause any trouble.

On a recent hot Saturday afternoon, there were about 15 people at the beach, three of them women, none of whom would speak for the record. Other than the absence of swimsuits, there was nothing to distinguish it from a traditional beach: People brought beach chairs and coolers, some paddled canoes, others just sunbathed.

“We try to make it clean, safe and enjoyable for everyone, that includes families with children, that includes anyone from anywhere, and yet we’re being accused of dominating the area,” said David Timson, of St. Johnsbury, who has been going to Southwest Cove for 20 years.

He heads up a newly formed organization called Friends of Southwest Cove. “The people who are complaining in the town are complaining we are taking over.”

Westmore, about 20 miles south of the Canadian border in northeastern Vermont, has a permanent population of 319, which jumps to about 1,000 in the summer.

Some might chuckle at the politics of nudity. But for people here, there’s nothing funny about it.

What beach regulars consider a friendly greeting can be construed as an intimidating approach by a naked man. Sexual behavior might be forbidden on the beach, but some hikers from a nearby campground are warned to watch out for it if they plan to walk through the woods away from the water.

Town Clerk Greg Gallagher said the three-member town select board has been asked to deal with the issue before, but chose not to. “They didn’t see how they could enforce it,” Gallagher said.

Enforcement is still a question mark, but the board is due to consider the issue again at its next meeting, scheduled for June 23.

Vermont has long been known for clothing-optional swimming holes – some clandestine, others semipublic.

Willoughby’s Southwest Cove, which is part of Willoughby State Forest, is listed in at least some nudist guides as “Cunningham Cove” after Jim Cunningham, a Westfield man for whom non-sexual nudity has taken on the trappings of a religious crusade.

He is credited with making Southwest Cove nude friendly. A quarter century ago, Cunningham, his wife and kids started using the beach in the nude. No one was offended and the word quickly spread.

Several years ago, the state Department of Forest, Parks and Recreation looked at the issue and decided to leave the situation as it was.

The only problem at the beach stems from the users cleaning it too much, said Forest and Parks Commissioner Jonathan Wood. By removing driftwood and vegetation, the users are interfering with natural processes.

“The front of the beach is getting undermined. We’re losing beach,” Woods said. “I don’t care whose using it or what they’re wearing, when you utilize public land you need to utilize it in a responsible manner.”

Bob Drew, a summer resident who lives in Knoxville, Tenn., and is president of the 350-family Westmore Association, said the group’s 11-member board was split 6-5 in favor of the nudity ordinance.

“We all have our personal feelings about it. I just don’t go down there,” said Drew, 75, “Most of them are fat old men like me. Who wants to see them?” he said.

Raymond LaFountaine, 41, a businessman from Magog, Quebec, and his wife Sonia Laverdure travel to Westmore several times a summer to camp nearby and walk over to Southwest Cove and relax nude.

“I think it’s a privilege because it’s such a beautiful place, such a peaceful place, we can enjoy that little beach,” LaFountaine said.

But Strange said he would like to enjoy the beach too, along with his family. For some in town, the anti-nudity effort is an issue of morality. Not for Strange.

“Why in the heck should I be feeling good about people who pretty much co-opted that beach down there and made it their own?” Strange said.

“All we’re looking for, you know, is no nudity on the public beach,” he said. “You want to be naked in private, fine… I just don’t want you to prance around like a puffed up chicken in front of my kids and think it’s OK.”

AP-ES-06-15-08 1226EDT


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