Much of Scarborough was still asleep or just stirring around 6:30 a.m. Tuesday, but every beachfront parking spot near Higgins Beach – except those reserved for handicapped drivers – already was occupied.

About a dozen surfers waited for worthy waves in the early morning fog while others wriggled into wetsuits on the sidewalk. Dogs chased balls or each other on the beach as their owners chatted. An older couple got their exercise by wading in the surf.

However, the red, white and blue banner hanging on the fence declaring “PROTECT ACCESS TO HIGGINS BEACH” made clear that all is not harmonious at the popular surfing beach.

Several residents of Bayview Avenue have proposed two ordinances that would eliminate beachfront parking from 6 to 7 a.m. and prohibit “dressing, undressing and changing of clothes” at town parks and beaches. Supporters argue that the ordinances are needed to reduce early morning noise and discourage visitors – particularly surfers – from changing in public. Opponents have responded with the banner and website, a petition drive and accusations that neighbors are blowing the situation out of proportion in hopes of eliminating public parking on the road.

Higgins Beach is the latest locale in the never-ending battle over access to and use of Maine beaches, conflicts that often pit waterfront property owners against in-town residents and other visitors. In one of the highest-profile cases, beachfront property owners in Kennebunkport have battled for years over whether the public should have full access to Goose Rocks Beach. Scarborough and other southern Maine towns, meanwhile, have restricted dogs on beaches to protect endangered piping plovers.

The debate over parking and public decency at Higgins Beach comes roughly four years after the town created about a dozen one-hour parking spots along a stretch of Bayview Avenue, which is home to both small traditional shore houses and larger beach homes. The Town Council will discuss the proposed ordinances during a meeting Sept. 2.

“One of the challenges with Higgins Beach is it is a very close-knit community with houses very close together on the beach, so some of the challenges with noise are inevitable,” said Thomas Hall, Scarborough’s town manager.

The debate also comes several years after the municipality “invested heavily,” according to Hall, to build heated changing rooms and showers for beachgoers just two blocks away. Hall said part of the frustration fueling the debate stems from surfers who opt to change in and out of their wetsuits on the sidewalk or beach rather than at the town’s facilities.

Jeff Perkins of Cape Elizabeth, who has been surfing at Higgins Beach for 10 years, acknowledged that some surfers or dog owners could be quieter, especially in the early morning, but he thinks the two ordinances reach too far.

“The changing issue is a non-issue,” Perkins said, surveying the scene Tuesday as he weighed whether to pull out his surfboard. “I’ve been coming down here a long time and I’ve never seen anyone’s bum or anybody naked” apart from the accidental “slip of the towel.”

WHICH SIDE WILL BE INCONVENIENCED?

Others, however, tell a different story.

Frank Stephens, who was on litter patrol Tuesday morning with two other local residents, said he saw a man just the other day wearing a T-shirt and nothing else as he changed into or out of his swim gear.

“You don’t want to expose your little kids to that, especially when we have a changing room up there,” Stephens said, motioning in the direction of public bathrooms located in a municipal parking lot about two blocks from the beach.

But Doug Pierce, who paused while walking Spencer and Zephie, two Labrador retrievers, questioned what was really driving those behind the ordinances.

“There’s a mixed message: Is it about undressing, or are we waking people up an hour early?” said Pierce, a Scarborough resident who has been coming to Higgins Beach for 12 years. “That’s what this is really about.”

The section of Bayview Avenue in front of Higgins Beach is open to public parking between 6 a.m. and 10 p.m. from May through Sept. 15, but beachgoers can only stay for an hour at a time. Visitors unable to snag a beachfront spot or who want to linger longer than an hour can park in the municipal lot.

For those looking to ride a few waves or walk the beach before work, eliminating the 6 to 7 a.m. parking on Bayview Avenue would be at best an inconvenience and, at worst, a deterrent to using the beach.

Joan and Peter Hinrichs, both 85, make the short drive from their Scarborough home to Higgins Beach nearly every morning around 6 a.m. when the weather permits in order to wade through the surf for exercise. Peter Hinrichs said the couple likes Higgins Beach because of the ease of access, adding that it would be difficult for his wife to walk all of the way from the municipal lot.

“I’m not sure why they would want to close it between 6 and 7,” Hinrichs said while leaning on his walking poles in the cool surf. “If there was a lot of noise, you could see it. But it’s not that way here.”

WORKING GROUP’S PLAN SUPERSEDED

Hall said the town has received just five noise complaints and one public nudity or indecency complaint so far this year, none of which resulted in summonses. By comparison, the town has received 70 parking complaints and has issued 255 parking tickets.

Melissa Gates, a Mainer and Northeast regional coordinator for the Surfrider Foundation, a nonprofit that seeks to protect beach access, said the early morning activity has been a recurring issue at Higgins Beach raised by a handful of local homeowners. This year, Scarborough’s ordinance committee rejected a request from some of those homeowners to remove public parking on Bayview Avenue. But the discussion led to subsequent meetings of a working group created to address some of the issues raised by the homeowners.

Gates said that group had agreed to erect a sign on “beach etiquette” at the site, and the Surfrider Foundation planned to conduct some outreach to beach users. Instead, she said, the homeowners proposed the two ordinances – without first informing her or other members of the working group – as a way to chip away at the public parking.

“This is a limitation on public access,” Gates said by phone Tuesday. “When you are removing parking for the beach, you are limiting access.”

Back at Higgins Beach, neighborhood resident Patricia Daly said public parking “has been a problem since Day One.” Daly, who picks up trash on the beach and street most days as part of the volunteer neighborhood litter patrol, said the simplest solution to the problems would be to keep parking for handicapped drivers but require all others to use the free municipal parking a few blocks away.

“The whole issue is the parking on the street,” Daly said. “That’s what started this.”

 

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