Debate heats up over parking at Higgins Beach in Scarborough

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SCARBOROUGH — Opponents of an ad hoc committee recommendation to limit on-street parking at Higgins Beach are getting organized, while the committee is sticking to its guns.

The opposition has formed a Google group, savehigginsparking, and created a Facebook group to draw attention to an issue they believe affects more than just occasional beach walkers and surfers.

They believe the proposal, which would limit on-street parking to 30 minutes during the off season and eliminate spaces along the beach, erodes access to a public resource.

Cape Elizabeth resident Adam Steinman, legal counsel for the Surfrider Foundation, said “a vociferous group of three or four loud property owners who are interested in limiting access” are behind the committee recommendation.

But committee members said there were many opposing views and that the discussions were diverse.

“I think that (the committee) was a representative group,” member Barbara Belicose said. “We really did consider every possible option.”

Even though the Higgins Beach parking issue has been discussed twice by previous committees, one in 1980 and another in 1998, most recently the issue came to light when a group of citizens asked the town to consider changing the parking restrictions at Higgins Beach to match other beaches in town.

Higgins has six fewer weeks considered part of the off season than all of Scarborough’s other beaches.

So the Town Council recommended an ad hoc committee form to discuss on-street parking issues at the beach. At the same time, another committee was meeting to discuss what to do with a parking lot the town purchased near the beach.

After meeting regularly through the summer, the street-parking committee presented its recommendations to the council in early November. The most contentious issue presented was the elimination of unlimited parking along the beach during the off season, which passed 4-3 in a committee vote.

Other recommendations included giving exclusive use of six town-owned parking spots on Greenwood Avenue to the Higgins Beach Inn and creating a pick-up and drop-off area in front of the beach for year-round use.

Critics have called these recommendations limits to access, while committee members have said they are only trying to increase turnover in the beach-front spots and push longer-term users to the new town parking lot up the street. That area is proposed to have bathroom and changing facilities, too, which would help eliminate complaints about nudity and public urination at the beach.

“At no time has anyone entertained limiting access to the beach,” committee member and Breakers Inn owner Rodney Laughton said. “My business depends on people visiting the beach. Why would I want to limit that?”

During a lengthy meeting on Dec. 1, the council heard from dozens of people, all of whom spoke out against the parking restrictions. No one spoke in favor of the restrictions.

Janice Parente, president of the local Surfrider Foundation, attempted to propose an alternate parking resolution during the meeting, but, when the council decided to table the issue until its Dec. 15 meeting, her presentation was truncated.

“It took me about a week to put it together,” Parente said. “I felt like I was being kicked off the stage.”

Her proposal included diagonal spaces along the beach where parallel parking is currently allowed. Approximately 31 cars can now park along the beach from Pearl to Champion streets, Parente said, but they are often disorderly and difficult to maneuver around.

The diagonal spaces would be marked and would keep people from opening car doors into traffic, which, Parente said, would help alleviate some of the safety concerns that have come up during the debate.

“(Town Manager) Tom Hall invited me in and I was told it wasn’t a viable alternative,” Parente said.

Parente said she never heard from any town councilors about her proposal.

Hall did not respond to a request for comment.

During last week’s meeting, Councilor Michael Wood spoke in favor of the parking limits, saying that Higgins Beach is unique because it is the only beach used regularly by surfers. When the surfers called out from the audience to correct him, he berated them for interrupting.

“I don’t know why I can’t have a conversation on this subject without getting that kind of feedback,” Wood said during the meeting.

Attorney Steinman, who spoke several times during the meeting, said he was disturbed by the interaction.

“I’ve practiced in every court in the state, appeared before every council in southern Maine,” Steinman said. “I’ve never seen anyone behave the way he did. I thought it was really unprecedented.”

Wood did not respond to a request for comment by deadline.

Scarborough resident Kerry Corthell called on the council during the Dec. 1 meeting to create a review committee that better represents the town.

“I read the committee minutes. There were so many options they didn’t even consider,” Corthell said.

Belicove said she would be willing to look at compromises, but that the committee reviewed many options, including the ones presented to the council.

“When you sit on a committee in a democracy, you have to be prepared to compromise,” she said. “We’ve been perceived as a bunch of Higgins Beach people who just want the beach for ourselves. But we did the best we could with the time allotted.”

The council will discuss and vote on the issue at its Dec. 15 meeting.

Emily Parkhurst can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 125 or eparkhurst@theforecaster.net

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