Monday, June 15, 2015

Fish & Boat Commission Lease Creates Somerset Lake Nature Park

The Fish and Boat Commission Monday officially transferred management of its Somerset Lake property to Somerset County, formally creating the Somerset Lake Nature Park.
The transfer was consummated during a public lease signing at the lake as part of the second annual Lake Fest, a day-long outdoor event sponsored by Somerset County and the Somerset County Conservancy.
PFBC Executive Director John Arway joined PFBC Commissioner Lenny Lichvar and county commissioners John Vatavuk, Joe Betta and Pamela Tokar-Ickes at the event to sign the lease and discuss future plans for the property.
“We’re excited about our new partnership with Somerset County,” said Arway. “The Fish and Boat Commission will continue to own the lake and will maintain the fishery. But through this strategic partnership, the county will be able to enhance the property’s recreational use and operation, making it even more appealing to the local community.”
At its May quarterly business meeting, the PFBC Board of Commissioners approved a 25-year agreement with the county. The lease, which was done at no cost to the county, requires the county to be responsible for routine maintenance of the leased property, excluding the dam area and the PFBC’s Southwest Regional Office.
The PFBC owns approximately 468 acres of property at the site in Somerset Township, which includes the 253-acre lake.
PFBC Commissioner and Somerset County resident Lenny Lichvar was instrumental in facilitating the lease with the county. He also serves on the Somerset Lake Action Committee, which is raising funds to make recreational improvements at the lake and to contribute to the future rebuilding of the lake’s dam.
“The lake and the property around it are gems in this area,” said Lichvar. “This is a popular spot for not only anglers and boaters, but outdoor enthusiasts, who come here to walk, bicycle and bird watch. This new partnership is a milestone in making the area, including Somerset, a tourist destination spot.”
County Chairman Vatavuk echoed those thoughts, noting that the lake draws tourists and pumps money into the local economy.
“Outdoor recreation is a huge business, particularly in smaller communities like Somerset,” he said. “When we draw people to the lake, they often stop in our community to shop at our grocery stores, to dine at our restaurants and to pick up supplies and equipment for their trips.”
The county’s Parks and Recreation Board will manage and oversee the Nature Park. Some of the potential future projects may include improving and completing the trail around the lake; upgrading fishing access at the Siemons Lakeview Manor Nursing and Rehabilitation Center by installing a covered fishing pier which complies with the Americans with Disabilities Act; and adding picnic tables, pavilions, grills and restrooms in several locations.
Plans also call for improving and reconfiguring existing boat launch areas, and providing a space at the main access area to rent boats, canoes and kayaks.
The lake was originally developed by the PFBC for public fishing and boating. It has two boat launches, with boating being restricted to electric motors only. Largemouth bass are managed under Big Bass regulations and other fishes are managed with statewide regulations.
The PFBC stocks walleye and channel catfish fingerlings annually and stocks muskellunge and tiger muskellunge in alternating years.  The property is also home to the Commission’s Southwest Region office that includes law enforcement, fisheries management, education and outreach, and property maintenance.
Under the lease agreement, the county must ensure that the site remains open for public fishing and boating free of charge, must ensure that fishing and boating will take precedence over other recreational activities, and must seek PFBC approval before making any new recreational improvements.
The county may develop, enhance and place improvements on the leased area for public recreation, but they cannot adversely impact public fishing and boating or the aquatic resources on the property.
The dam at Somerset Lake is one of 10 high-hazard, unsafe dams managed by the PFBC on behalf of the Commonwealth. Somerset Lake was lowered six feet in January 2012 to reduce pressure on the earthen dam after inspectors documented excessive seepage, and it will remain at that level until an inspection requires further draining for safety or until funding is fully established to reconstruct the facility.
The Somerset Lake Action Committee has taken the initiative to raise over $100,000 toward the estimated $8.6 million total cost to design and repair the dam. The PFBC is currently working with state officials to leverage agency resources with capital budget dollars and secure the full funding needed to complete the project.

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