Originally published in Island Ad-Vantages, March 6, 2014
Stonington town meeting
Sand Beach parking concerns aired at annual meeting
With townspeople providing a standing ovation, newly elected Stonington Fire Chief Ryan Hayward presents a plaque to Augustus “Sonny” Bartlett Jr. marking his more than 51 years of service to the town’s volunteer fire department. Bartlett officially retired from the department at the end of 2013 having served as a firefighter, department captain, assistant chief and fire chief and, most recently, as fire police. The wooden plaque holds a firefighter’s axe and an inscription noting his years of service. The town also honored Bartlett on his retirement from the department and dedicated the 2013 Annual Report to him, thanking him for his years of “unselfish service and personal dedication.”
by Rich Hewitt
Concerns over the continued public use of Sand Beach were the prime topic of discussion during the annual town meeting Monday, March 3.
The discussion began innocently enough when someone asked why there was no recommendation from the selectmen on the two questions dealing with the town’s lease of the Sand Beach property which is private property.
The selectmen had decided not to make a recommendation on whether to raise and appropriate $5,800 for the lease and whether to raise and appropriate $2,500 for insurance that covers the property owner.
“There was no consensus whether this was still a good investment, so we agreed to let the voters decide,” explained Selectman Chris Betts.
In response to a question, Betts said that if the voters did not approve the funds, it would no longer be a public beach.
Folks clearly didn’t like that idea. Robert Ray noted that the beach was a popular spot.
“A lot of people use the beach all summer long,” he said. “There’s very few beaches left in town.”
That heavy use, however, may be the beach’s biggest problem, according to Selectman Richard Larrabee Sr.
“A lot of people do use it,” he said, “but a lot of people create parking problems up there.”
People park along the narrow road near the beach, regularly blocking the corner and creating a potential hazard. The way people park, Larrabee said, narrows the travel way so that emergency vehicles such as fire trucks and an ambulance cannot get through.
While residents understood the problem, they did not want to lose the beach.
One man suggested that the beach was an economic asset to the town and that voters should not be talking about voting down funds for it.
Cynthia Bourgeault agreed and argued that the town should be doing all it could to create and sustain that kind of waterfront access. In response to her question, the selectmen noted that there already are “no parking” signs along the road, but people ignore them.
“They park right in front of the sign,” said Fire Chief Ryan Hayward, newly elected to that position by the Stonington Fire Department members.
“That’s the problem,” added Betts. “Kathleen [Town Manager Kathleen Billings-Pezaris] gets calls about people obstructing the road. She’s busy. But she has to call the tow truck because these people don’t care. They are parking in people’s driveways. That’s why something has to change. It’s very frustrating.”
The violators are equally local residents and summer visitors and although the parking restrictions are enforced and cars are towed, that creates its own set of problems, according to Billings-Pezaris. Towing crews have been physically threatened and people have stolen back their towed cars from the lot during the night.
Billings-Pezaris said she has spoken with the property owners but it remains unclear what can be done to ease the problem. The owners have been unwilling to give up more of their property to create additional parking, she said, and any such project would cost the town a considerable amount of money.
The town had suggested the possibility of creating paid parking so that the owners could make a little money, said Selectman Donna Brewer. But, she said, they weren’t interested.
In the same vein, William Shepard proposed establishing a shuttle bus run from the parking area at the former school building to the beach.
Nat Barrows said the beach was a “gem” for the town but added that the gem was flawed because of the parking issues. He suggested that any talk of cutting the funding be ended and urged selectmen to develop a plan that would allow the continued use of the beach and address the parking issues, even if it did require the expenditure of town funds. Others went further and urged the formation of a committee to address the issue.
No action was taken on forming a committee, but voters did approve both the lease funding and liability insurance funds.
Voters approved most of the $1.5 million municipal budget as presented, but not without questions. One big ticket item that drew questions was the $75,000 appropriation for the Hagen Dock. Billings-Pezaris explained that the funds would not likely pay for the work on the dock, but would be used for engineering studies and for matching funds as the town looked for grant funds for the actual project. In response to questions, she said the project could include dredging of the area around the dock to allow access at low water. The town also may look at moving the seawall at the dock out into the harbor, which might provide an opportunity for additional parking in that area.
Engineer Andrew McCulloch has developed several different scenarios for the dock project, Billings-Pezaris said.
“We’ll look at all the variables the same way we did on the Moose Island project,” she said.
She added she would like to seek grant funding for the project in order to avoid borrowing a lot of money, but warned that most grants require as much as 50 percent in matching funds. A portion of the $75,000 could be used for that purpose, she said.
Voters approved the appropriation.
The voters did cut the appropriation for the Eastern Area Agency on Aging from $2,600 to $1,300. Rita O’Brien proposed the cut noting that many of the programs or services that the agency provides are actually funded through other sources.
Although she said she appreciated the services the agency provides, she said she wanted to see more accountability on how the funds were spent, noting that the agency has requested the same amount for a number of years, regardless of the amount of services they provide.
“They’re just writing us in and not paying attention to their budget,” she said.
Voters approved the reduction for that agency but balked at a similar proposed cut for the Hancock County Homecare and Hospice, especially after several residents supported that agency and touted the services they provide. Several said they had relied on that agency for help with family members.
“They provide a very real service for the town… they’re here every single day even if you need them 24-hours a day,” said Selectman Donna Brewer. “I don’t know what they do with their budget, but they deserve what they get. They’re worth every penny.”
In the face of similar support from the floor, O’Brien withdrew her motion to reduce the appropriation, but several residents suggested that the town seek more accountability and information from the agency before the town meeting next year.