HARPSWELL — For 37 years, Stephanie Dumont has lived next door to the All Saints by-the-Sea Episcopal Chapel on Washington Avenue, a sleepy road bordering the entrance to one of Bailey Island’s best-kept secrets, the Giant Stairs.
At least it used to be a secret.
Apparently spurred by a Downeast Magazine article that spotlighted the hidden coastal rock formation, tourists have swarmed the area, transforming the quiet neighborhood during the summer months into a circus of loud picnickers, speeding motorists, and littering hikers.
The dramatic, 2.5-acre strip of rock, lined by a 700-foot path created in 2008, traditionally drew visitors by word of mouth or from the town’s website.
“(Traffic) increased 50-fold (in the last year),” Dumont said last week, describing the congestion from parked cars that has in some cases prevented property owners from leaving their driveways.
Dumont and more than a dozen other neighborhood residents met with selectmen last week about preserving the safety and character of their street.
The meeting followed a letter residents sent to the town March 23, seeking a parking ban on Washington Avenue and additional signs posting the road’s 15 mph speed limit.
Hope Hilton, a member of the Town Lands Committee, told selectmen April 13 that last summer escalated to new levels of “rude” and “disruptive” crowds.
“It was like Coney Island down there,” Hilton said.
A parking ordinance prohibits parking on Ocean Street, but visitors are allowed to park at one of six spaces at the chapel – although residents pointed out that the spaces are small, and SUVs tend to stick out into the street.
Additionally, at least two of the spaces are occupied by church employees; a nearby sign at the entrance of Ocean Street also discourages use of the parking spaces on Sunday mornings.
The Harpswell Heritage Land Trust, which manages the abutting McIntosh Preserve, created four parking spots in collaboration with the town last fall. Trust Director Reed Coles said Monday that signs have yet to be posted, but have been ordered, to identify the spots available for visitors to the Giant Stairs.
Coles added the town has asked the land trust to create a parking lot at the preserve, but it has had to decline because the request would violate the terms of the gifted property.
No parking ordinance exists for Washington Avenue, Town Administrator Kristi Eiane said, meaning cars cannot be ticketed for parking within the town’s right of way.
“However, that does not give someone the right to park on private property,” Eiane noted, which some visitors have reportedly done.
Vivian Dorman, who has lived in the neighborhood for 26 years, said she counted as many as 22 cars parked along the street at one time last summer.
Once, she was nearly unable to pull out of her driveway due to a blockade of parked cars; when her neighbors have been blockaded, she said, they’ve had to call the sheriff’s office in order to leave their homes.
Residents doubt the effectiveness of handing out first-offense warnings, according to Dumont and Dorman, because most of the cars have out-of-state license plates, suggesting the drivers are tourists and may not return.
They said the visitors’ vacation mindset results in disrespect for the property: litter, car horns, and unruliness around peaceful sunrise and sunset hours.
Dorman is also concerned about access through the narrow corridor of cars in the event of an emergency.
Like Dorman, Dumont said the neighbors are more concerned about traffic safety than noise.
Many cars zip down the road, which bends sharply at the chapel and Ocean Street, and terminates as a dead end.
“We’re so lucky last year there wasn’t a tragedy, that’s how bad (the speeding) has been,” Dumont told selectmen.
Residents and selectmen seemed to agree that a dead-end sign at the start of Washington Avenue might reduce speeds.
Selectmen Rick Daniel said the town will work on drafting a parking ordinance based on input from the neighborhood, although the board did not decide specific details or say whether the neighbors will get everything they asked for in their letter.
The Board of Selectmen is authorized to adopt a parking ordinance without voter approval at Town Meeting.
Selectmen also proposed to “downplay” promoting the area in pamphlets printed by the Recreation Department, given the consensus that publicity had created the problem.
The suggestion, made by Selectman Kevin Johnson, drew applause from the people in the room.
Trash left behind by visitors last summer on the Giant Stairs rock formation on Bailey Island.
According to residents, the intersection of Washington Avenue and Ocean Street on Bailey Island in Harpswell is overrun by cars and during the summer, when tourists descend on the nearby entrance to the Giant Stairs.