Is Old Lyme’s new policy of charging for street parking driving people away from Sound View Beach?
That was ostensibly the big question at last night’s Board of Selectmen meeting but what emerged during the lengthy public comment segment revealed a deeper rift between the people who are living by the town’s public beach and those who are trying to make a living from it.
The Board of Selectmen met before an uncommonly packed house on August 6, with state troopers and television cameras on hand to catch all the action.
From the beginning, it was a room divided, with business owners and students working for them wearing t-shirts emblazoned with “Sound View Beach” sitting on one side and longtime residents and members of the Sound View Commission on the other.
Each had a very different take on the town’s attempt to change the culture of Sound View Beach by enforcing rules regarding alcohol and noise and imposing parking fees of $25 on weekends and holidays on streets that used to be the only place close to the beach where parking was free.
Are Town Policies Bad for Business?
“Sound View is becoming a ghost town,” said Lindsey Maratta, whose father, Frank, owns The Pavilion on Sound View Beach at the end of Swan Avenue. “The last thing we need to battle now is our own town.”
Speaking for “12 small business owners struggling to make ends meet,” she noted that they all depend on just three months during the summer to carry them through the rest of the year—and not all of them are making it this year because there's less foot traffic to the beach.
“This season is the worst on record and the only difference is the change in parking,” Maratta said.
Retired school teacher Deb Corto, whose family established Lenny’s on the Beach in 2008, when the recession really hit home, said everyone in her family had invested their life savings in the bar and restaurant and thought they’d survived the worst until this year.
“The solution is free parking,” she said.
“Sound View has become an unfriendly public beach,” said Joe Vecchitto, who said his summer Italian Ice business has been booming everywhere but in Old Lyme. “When I hear that what we want is folks with more money in their pocket, that’s a real concern for me. We want to attract people to the beach.”
There was, however, much discussion about what kind of people Old Lyme wanted to attract.
“I’ve always supported business,” said Russ Carlo. But, he added, “You need to change the type of people who come down to Old Lyme. They are very disrespectful of the beach. They leave the beach a mess.”
Carlo, whose job involves cleaning beaches along the shoreline, wasn't so quck to blame the parking policy for the drop in business. He said that many businesses along the coast have been experiencing a general economic downtrend this year. Others also noted that Rocky Neck Park—which is often forced to close due to overcrowding—has been open all year because it's just not that crowded.
Cracking Down on Bad Behavior
Some residents who spoke last night, however, welcomed the town’s new get-tough policy on bad behavior at the beach. Many longtime residents applauded the addition of town rangers, increased police patrols, and parking fees that they say have eliminated many of the traffic problems that arose when free street parking was limited to a two-hour maximum stay.
Many of them also remembered when the commercial district along Hartford Avenue didn’t have just two bars, it had seven. Yet, they said, in recent years they’d seen more public drunkenness and lewdness than they ever had before, with people urinating in their yards and having sex in public.
John Boccaccio of Portland Avenue recalled going to his family’s favorite ice cream shop last summer with eight grandchildren in tow only to have his six-year-old granddaughter ask, “Poppa, what’s she doing?” after a drunken couple got into a car to have sex.
“This is supposed to be a family-oriented place!” he said.
Making Soundview More Family Friendly
The Sound View Commission has been working hard with the Board of Selectmen to make the beach more family-friendly and by many accounts, they’ve had some success.
“I was here when there were seven bars and sailors on the street but I’ve never seen what I’d seen [in recent years].” said Barbara Fox of Lincoln Road, who applauds the changes she’s seen since the new regulations took effect. “This year has been the best year in years,” she said.
Still, the parking fees remain a sticky issue. “My family won’t come to the beach anymore because they’re given tickets,” said Bill Perrohe, who lives on Gorton Avenue Extension.
The Board of Selectmen seemed fairly blindsided by the attacks on the new policy. First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said some business owners who spoke out against the parking fees last night had said they supported the new policy at the start of the summer.
Board members said they’d be willing to reconsider the parking issue but they’d like to see the business owners work more closely with the Sound View Commission to establish guidelines that will work for everyone.
A Long-Standing Conflict of Interests
Michaelle Pearson, a member of the Sound View Commission who has written a history of the beaches of Old Lyme said the conflict between business owners and residents isn’t new. As other speakers also noted, it’s been going on for about a century.
“It’s easy to stir the pot but that’s not productive,” Pearson said. “We’re neighbors.”
“There are unnecessarily hard feelings,” agreed Ron Breen, whose family has owned a house at 35 Swan Avenue for more than a century. “We all want the same thing. All of us here in this room are here because we love Sound View Beach. We have to give a little bit in order to get what we want. We don’t want public urination and sex acts but driving people away from the beach is not the solution. We need [the Board of Selectmen] to reconsider the parking policy.”