SCARBOROUGH, Maine — Tempers flared at Wednesday’s Town Council public hearing on proposed Higgins Beach parking restrictions.
Residents on both sides of the issue angrily addressed members of the council, grumbled at other speakers, and spoke out of turn, driving Chairwoman Jessica Holbrook to call two five-minute recesses.
The debate revolves around 13 public parking spaces along Bayview Avenue, and whether reducing the allowable parking time from one hour to 30 minutes will reduce public access to the beach.
An alternative would be for beachgoers to walk to the beach from a town-owned parking lot two blocks inland, off Ocean Avenue.
Initially, the aim was also to delay parking hours along Bayview from 6 a.m. to 7 a.m., with an additional proposal to alter dressing and undressing regulations at the beach. Those changes were sought primarily by Higgins Beach property owners opposed to surfers changing in and out of their wetsuits at the beach and next to their cars along Bayview.
The council approved a first reading of the parking ordinance on Sept. 2, although the nudity issue was tabled indefinitely, and the parking proposal was amended to maintain the 6 a.m. starting time, while reducing the parking time limit to 30 minutes.
Some opponents of any change in the parking ordinance believe Councilor William Donovan has a conflict of interest and should have recused himself from the first vote. Donovan owns property on Morning Street, which runs perpendicular to Bayview Avenue; the property is also for sale.
At the first reading, Donovan told the public, “(Surfers) are occupying a space that was not intended for two- to three-hour use. Everyone knows it’s true.”
The 30-minute amendment “will improve this to the purpose which it was always intended. It was intended for short-term users,” Donovan said.
Those participating in “ocean sports” perpetually occupy “the majority of those spaces” to the exclusion of the elderly, dog walkers and other beachgoers, he said.“Get it? (Surfers are) not supposed to park there.”
Melissa Gates, regional manager of the Surfrider Foundation, which has partnered with the community group Higgins for All to protect public access to the beach, on Sept. 3 submitted a letter to the town asking Donovan to recuse himself from council discussions on the issue.
Donovan did so on Wednesday.
“I don’t stand to gain financially by the town enforcing its short-term parking (policy) for Bayview,” he said. “But my consideration cannot end there. I want the process free from any perception of a conflict, and so, with apologies for any distraction this has caused, I recuse myself so long as I own property along Bayview Avenue.”
Councilor Peter Hayes suggested Donovan should refrain from the discussion and vote regardless of whether he sells the property, but Donovan said he would only recuse himself as long as he owns it.
Councilor Ed Blaise, who also lives near Higgins Beach, on Fore Street, said he had considered recusing himself, too, but ultimately decided not to.
“Any decision made by this council (on this subject), I don’t stand to gain or lose. I am a resident of Higgins Beach, but I am not going to recuse myself unless the remainder of the council thinks it’s necessary,” Blaise said.
Maureen Burns, a member of Higgins for All and the Surfrider Foundation, said Thursday morning that she thinks Donovan “made the right decision in recusing himself,” and that he “should have done it a lot earlier.”
Suzanne Foley-Ferguson, of Black Point Road, citing Maine statutes, asserted Wednesday night that Donovan’s recusal means his vote on the first reading “is voidable under state law.”
“The vote of a body is voidable” when a voting member of that body has a conflict of interest, Foley-Ferguson said.
The Surfrider Foundation could take the matter to court if the first vote isn’t voided, Foley-Ferguson warned.
Rick Davies, of Black Point Road, said the entire issue should be put to rest.
“I know people abuse the one-hour time limit, (and) they’ll probably get a ticket, (and) then the discussion is over,” he told the council.
It’s frustrating, he said, to see so much time and money “go into something with such little merit.”
“Let’s all take a step back and make an honest and clear judgment,” he said.
Proponents of the ordinance change claimed the issue is more a matter of convenience, rather than access.
“It has been claimed, both here and in the media, that there is a risk of access to Higgins Beach,” said Paul Reising, who owns a house on Shipwreck Road.
“There isn’t (a) threat (of lost access) in any way, nor has there ever been one,” he said. “As far back as I can remember, the Higgins Beach community has been welcoming to the public for all customary beach activities.
“Honoring that time limit, although it may inconvenience you,” does not constitute a threat of access, Reising said; it simply allows more people to enjoy the beach.
But the issues of convenience and access are the same, Foley-Ferguson said.
“Webster’s dictionary (definition) of access is not just a point of entry, it is also whether someone can make use of something; 30 minutes gives you half that access, but not enough time to make use of the beach,” she said.
A second reading on the proposed amendment is scheduled for Wednesday, Oct. 7.