Higgins awash in controversy over new rules

The spotlight will be squarely on the Scarborough Town Council this week as it debates two controversial measures designed to curb what some see as problem behavior at Higgins Beach.

Going into the Sept. 2 meeting, at least two councilors, Ed Blaise and Bill Donovan, were firmly in the camp of those who say surfers and others are monopolizing the 1-hour public parking spots along Bayview Avenue.

In addition, many at Higgins Beach also complain of other behavior they say is inappropriate for a residential neighborhood, including public undressing, urination and tailgating.

The other side, though, says there is no issue at Higgins Beach and that the behavior residents there complain of is typical of a beach community and therefore should be tolerated.

They are also arguing that the proposed new rules would further limit access to one of the town’s most popular beaches.

The council was set to meet on Wednesday, after the Current’s print deadline.

As the councilor from Higgins Beach, Donovan may be getting the most pressure.

Donovan told the Current this week that he supports the two new ordinances that were sent to the full council for review earlier this summer by a divided Ordinance Committee.

Those new rules would limit parking from 7 a.m.-10 p.m. in the 1-hour spots on Bayview, eliminating one early morning hour of free public access. The other proposal would prohibit the “dressing, undressing or changing of clothes” at any park or beach in town.

Prior to the council meeting, Donovan told the Current, “My outlook is that the behavior problem is serious. I have observed it first hand (and) I hope that we can achieve some improvement.”

That’s why he is “reluctantly” supporting the ordinance changes recommended by the Ordinance Committee.

Donovan sees the proposed new rules as a “significant compromise,” and hopes the council will be willing to take a leadership role on the issues, which are now dividing the community at large.

Overall, Donovan said, he wants both sides to “be respectful” and to understand that the debate is not just about the right of access by the general public, but also about what’s appropriate in a residential neighborhood.

Blaise, who is also a member of the town’s Ordinance Committee and who voted along with Councilor Jean Marie Caterina to forward the proposed new rules to the full council, said this week “the problem has been on the table a long time and the situation just gets worse and worse.”

“Something needs to be done,” he said. “I support what we are bringing forward.”

However, Blaise also said he would be open to amendments that could be offered in response to public comment.

Both Donovan and Blaise said they are getting a lot of emails from people on both sides of the issue. But, Donovan also said most of his emails are coming from residents of Higgins Beach asking him to support the proposed new rules.

On the other side, groups such as the Surfrider Foundation, Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough and the newly formed Higgins For All are pushing the council not to make any changes.

After being launched nearly three weeks ago, an online petition on Change.org, which was sponsored by the Surfrider Foundation, has already gathered more than 1,600 signatures.

The petition calls on the council to reject the two new ordinances because they “would unnecessarily and significantly limit public access to Higgins Beach.”

In addition, the Higgins For All group members have put up three banners in the beachside neighborhood that say: “No reduced parking hours on Bayview Avenue. No ‘changing of clothes’ ordinance.”

Its website says: “A small group of Higgins Beach property owners are advocating for restrictions on access to and the use of Higgins Beach, (but) both of these proposals are unnecessary, and neither responds to the alleged problems of excessive noise and public indecency.”

The Higgins For All website also says, “There is no significant noise at Higgins Beach between 6 a.m. and 7 a.m.” It also states, “Many Scarborough and other local residents have limited time to visit the beach before work. Eliminating that hour of parking will make it impossible for some people to enjoy the beach.”

As for the new ordinance that would prohibit the changing of clothes, the Higgins For All website says, “Changing into or out of a wetsuit using a towel for coverage has been a common and acceptable practice for years at Higgins Beach and other Scarborough beaches. Most Scarborough beachgoers do not consider it to be immodest or objectionable behavior.”

Maureen Burns, a resident of Higgins Beach who is also one of the founders of Higgins for All, told the Current this week that the goal of the group is “to block the proposed ordinance changes.”

“The two proposals are unnecessary as the town (already) has ordinances in place to handle both noise and nudity,” she said, pointing out that “changing in and out of appropriate beach wear in a beach area should not be regulated.”

Burns added, “Higgins Beach is a beautiful, natural resource to be enjoyed by all. Life is not as it was back in the ’70s. We should all learn to be more tolerant and accepting of others.”

She said Higgins For All is made up of “Higgins Beach residents and others who come here regularly,” and said the goal of the group is to “make the general public aware of the proposed changes.”

Katy Foley, spokeswoman for Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough, agreed with Burns.

“We believe the two proposed ordinances continue to chip away at what we see as already limited and compromised (beach) access,” she said.

She also said her group is concerned about the process “by which these ordinances made their way to the full council.”

Foley said the process was “flawed, and (we) hope to get the council to practice better judgment when proposing new laws that address such a small portion of the population (because councilors) serve the whole community.”

Foley said the mission of Dog Owners of Greater Scarborough is a good match with that of Higgins For All, since “public access to Scarborough beaches was a foundational principle of our organization.”

She added, “Protecting that access is an imperative component of our mission.” She said her group got involved in the fight at Higgins Beach because “every incremental change to ordinances that aim to restrict access are simply a step closer to losing that access altogether.”

For her part, Foley’s hope is that the council would put “a moratorium on any and all changes at Higgins Beach for at least three years (because it’s) a waste of time and money.”

Overall, she said, “I think there are some residents who believe that Higgins Beach is a private beach and that is what they want. It is a beach. The behavior they are complaining about is not outrageous, inappropriate or uncommon to beach communities. It would be like moving to New York City and then complaining about the lights, horns and traffic.”

Melissa Gates, the northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said this week that the current proposals before the Town Council “would solve zero problems, while significantly limiting public access to Higgins Beach for many people.”

She said the goal of the Surfrider Foundation is for the council to “flatly reject the proposed ordinances at the first reading. We (also) hope the council will see these proposals for what they are – repeated attempts from a small subset of property owners who continually try to whittle away the public’s right of access to Higgins Beach.”

Gates also argued that the “opponents of public access have been creative in fogging up the issues.

“The Surfrider Foundation,” she said, “hopes the council will not be swayed by the interests of the few when looking to regulate the rights of the many.

“The Surfrider Foundation holds that adopting duplicative ordinances or trying to newly regulate and restrict normal beach behavior is bad policy,” she said.

Meanwhile, on the Town Council, Caterina, who initially voted with Blaise to move the two new ordinances forward, said this week that she did not support “either ordinance as written at this time.”

For her part, she believes the controversy at Higgins Beach is being caused by the “difficulties with the changing demographics of the population there. Where it once was primarily a workingman’s beach, it has changed over the years to persons from away bringing a different culture.”

Caterina added that she would “never support the elimination of parking (on Bayview) as that would be too restrictive (and change the) public’s historic access to the beach.”

On the other hand, she might be willing to “entertain some restriction on changing in and out of bathing suits including wetsuits on the street or sidewalk.”

In all, Caterina said, “My hope is that once the council weighs in, either for or against, that the residents of Higgins can accept the decision and move forward.”

Councilor Peter Hayes also weighed in this week.

He said that so far, “I have received more emails from constituents not supporting changes to the ordinances” and said it’s his belief that “this is a community issue and should be solved by the Higgins Beach community.”

But, he added, “Unfortunately, this has become a town issue that is receiving broad, negative and embarrassing attention both within, and outside, the state.”

Hayes said he is “uncomfortable with the process and how the changes have been brought to the council. (And), I am not sure it represents a majority view of the residents of the Higgins Beach community.”

The Current could not reach Council Chairwoman Jessica Holbrook or councilors Shawn Babine and Kate St. Clair before deadline.

However, St Clair is unlikely to support the ordinances changes since she voted against them at the Ordinance Committee level.

For their part two outspoken residents of Higgins Beach, who have been among those pushing for changes to curb what they see as unacceptable behavior, have hope that the majority of the council will break their way.

Both Barbara Bombaci and Glennis Chabot said this week that they are not trying to limit public access to Higgins Beach, but are only trying to get people to respect the 1-hour parking limit and to behave like they would in their own neighborhood.

Bombaci told the Current that the proposed new rules would not “limit or restrict access to Higgins Beach one bit,” and said her only goal is get people to use the public bathhouse and parking lot that are located less than a 5-minute walk away on Ocean Avenue.

Chabot argued that prior to 2011, there was no on-street parking allowed in Higgins and it was only when the 1-hour public spots were added to Bayview that the “behavior issues increased dramatically.”

She said, “The behavior issues were an unintended consequence of the parking, but they now need to be addressed by either eliminating the behaviors or removing the parking.”

Chabot also said that the Higgins For All group has “blinders on” and said that the online petition started by the Surfrider Foundation has been “signed by people all over the world, many of whom have never been to Higgins. The vast majority of signatories are not Scarborough residents and the Town Council should listen to the neighborhood.”

In addition, she said that, “The residents who want change on Bayview are not a small group. I am very involved in many activities at Higgins and inappropriate behavior issues are the talk of the neighborhood.”

Overall, Chabot said, “We are simply asking for the public to respect our neighborhood. Higgins Beach is a very special place and we want to preserve the character of our community for future generations to enjoy.”

A new citizen advocacy group, called Higgins For All, has put banners like these throughout the Higgins Beach neighborhood.Courtesy photoThe Scarborough Town Council is weighing two new rules that could impact how people access and use Higgins Beach. File photo

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