Proposed restrictions make waves at Higgins Beach in Scarborough

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SCARBOROUGH — The Town Council next week is slated to discuss proposed ordinance changes that would limit early morning parking and outlaw public dressing and undressing at Higgins Beach.

On the surface at least, the concern is about public parking: where it should be, whether it should be metered, who should park there, and when it should be accessible.

The amendments would delay the use of 13 public parking spots along Bayview Avenue for one hour a day, from 6-7 a.m.

But opponents say the accompanying language prohibiting “the changing of clothes within the limits of any park or beach” is aimed at surfers who wear wetsuits.

Together, they say, the two amendments are indicative of an us-versus-them dispute that continues to roil at Higgins.

In 2010, some residents tried to limit long-term parking by proposing the installation of parking meters on a part of Bayview Drive.

In January of 2011, the Town Council elected to allow year-round parking in 13 spaces on Bayview, to limit the time to one hour in the summer, and to ban non-resident parking along nearby streets. A town parking lot with room for more than 80 cars was opened two blocks inland, off Ocean Avenue; the rate is $10 a day per vehicle. In 2012, public changing rooms were built at the lot.

The parking lot is supposed to open at sunrise, but that doesn’t always happen, said Melissa Gates, northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, an organization whose mission is to protect shoreline access across the country.

When that’s the case, surfers, in their haste to catch morning waves, opt for the close-in parking and tend to pass up the town-owned changing rooms.

“It is perfectly normal behavior to change in and out of a wetsuit at a beach or in a parking lot,” and now one is advocating for public nudity, Gates said by phone on Tuesday. Police reports do not indicate there have been complaints about nudity, she added.

So far in 2015, only one formal complaint has been made in response to public indecency on or near Higgins Beach, Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton said Wednesday afternoon. The situation involved not a surfer, but an elderly man who was off his medication.

Five noise complaints have been lodged in 2015, Moulton said.

“Anecdotally, people who live there say that there’s other stuff going on, but we have had (virtually) no formal complaints,” the chief said.

That isn’t to say that the incidents aren’t necessarily happening, he added.

“What one person considers serious and what another person considers serious are certainly two different things,” Moulton said. “If you talk to people living down there, they’ll tell you these things are serious, (while other members of the public) would say it’s just general behavior in a public area.”

When it comes to indecency, what property owners are allegedly offended by, Gates said, is “the wiggle that people do to get in and out of wet suits.”

Moreover, state laws regarding public indecency are already in place, so writing a new ordinance would be superfluous, she said.

A neighborhood group spearheading the opposition, Higgins for All, has started a petition for those who oppose the changes. It claims the changes would only benefit the property owners and further restrict public access to the beach. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1,300 supporters had signed.

The group also hung banners over the weekend at Higgins Beach urging residents to protect access to the beach by opposing the proposed amendments.

Gates noted that residents can’t rely on the town-owned lot to be open at sunrise every morning, which invariably leaves all visitors – not just surfers – no choice but to park on Bayview Avenue if they want to use the beach before work.

The proposed parking restriction “really only serves to limit access to persons who are either of a working family, people who just want to get a quick walk or surf in before work, the elderly, and people who don’t want to or can’t physically walk (long distances),” she said.

The proposed changes will be read for the first time by the Town Council on Wednesday, Sept. 2.

Alex Acquisto can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106 or Follow Alex on Twitter: @AcquistoA.

The Scarborough organization Higgins for All hung two banners over the weekend at Higgins Beach, urging residents to oppose proposed amendment changes they say would impede public access.

South Portland and Scarborough reporter for The Forecaster. Graduate of Western Kentucky University and the Salt Institute for Documentary Studies. Alex can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 106.