City drafts beach ordinance for Bonnifield Lake rules
Fairfield residents who cherish Bonnifield Lake as their local swimming hole are one step closer to receiving permission to swim next season, granted they adhere to new safety rules.
The Fairfield Public Safety and Transportation Committee approved a draft of a beach ordinance written by Police Chief Julie Harvey Monday night to bring before the full council Oct. 22 at city hall. Roughly 1,000 people swim at the beach annually, according to chairman of the Bonnifield Beach volunteer committee Bob Klauber, and the new ordinance aims to make sure they do so safely.
After the July 12 drowning of Jesse Harl, 31, of Batavia, in Bonnifield Lake, the community came together to grieve his death. In the months following however, local authorities and beach volunteers have been divided as to whether or not the community should continue to have access to swim in the lake. The majority of city council has remained in favor of keeping the beach open, with a focus on doing so responsibly.
In the wake of Harl’s drowning, Mayor Ed Malloy closed the beach temporarily out of consideration for Harl’s family. Then on July 23, Malloy recommended to the full council they reopen the beach in response to feedback from the community. Fairfield City Council passed the motion with a 5-1 vote.
The new ordinance presented Monday would go into effect by next summer’s swim season. Committee chairwoman susan Silvers said the council will discuss the ordinance at the next meeting before entering into the hearing process.
“We are trying to do this in a thoughtful way and give people time to absorb the new rules,” she said.
The ordinance calls for the city to install a rescue device station containing a water rescue pole and a rope attached to a rescue device for emergencies. The beach would immediately be closed if any of the safety devices were stolen or vandalized, and would be reopened only once they were replaced.
The ordinance also grants all city employees the authority to issue written warnings to swimmers violating lake rules. However, only law enforcement could issue citations. Harvey said fines could be as much as $100 plus court costs. Anyone with three or more violations could be banned for the swim season.
City administrator Kevin Flanagan questioned whether all city employees would feel comfortable or inclined to issue written warnings. Although Harvey conceded park and recreation staff and water department were most likely to make use of the provision, she felt the rule itself could encourage compliance.
“It would send the message, we have more than 14 people watching now,” she said.
The ordinance gives the park and recreation director the authority to determine the swim season on a yearly basis, and to close the beach at any time for safety or health concerns.
The committee discussed allowable uses for the large yellow buoys in the center of the lake. The ordinance states the buoys are not to be used for lounging, but only for swimmers who “get into trouble.”
Silvers suggested the language might be too strict.
“Some members felt they should be able to float on them,” said Silvers.
However, Harvey said if permitted, it would be hard to differentiate between those lounging and those in need of help.
“How do we know if someone is in trouble if it’s a glorified noodle?” she asked.
Harvey said in the summer it’s common for 25 people to loiter on the noodles, chatting and getting into water fights.
In the interest of safety, the committee agreed to only allow tired swimmers to use the buoys while recovering.
As usual, the city would make clear to the community to “swim at your own risk.” The ordinance allows swimming from sunrise to sunset only in the roped beach area, or in the swim lanes running east and west across the body of water. It prohibits swimming in all other areas of the lake, as well as in all other city-owned reservoirs, such as Walton Lake and Pleasant Lake adjacent to Pleasant Plain Road.
Five people have drowned in reservoirs owned by the City of Fairfield since early residents built the first one — Bonnifield Lake — in 1885, according to Ledger archives.
The Iowa Department of Public Health, Office of the State Medical Examiner released Harl’s autopsy report Sept. 6, which determined freshwater drowning to be the cause of death, and the manner of death to be accidental. However, Jefferson County Attorney Tim Dille said any information about conditions causing Harl to drown is confidential under Iowa law.
Silvers said she’s received overwhelming response from the community in favor of keeping Bonnifield Lake open, despite the recent tragedy.