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Salem - The state is considering a new parking fee and a number of other operational changes at Gardner Lake State Park to improve a local attraction that has dealt with a rash of after-hours disturbances and arrests this summer.
The state-owned park has also experienced ongoing problems with littering, unkempt portable toilets close to swimming areas and people swimming outside of designated areas, according to First Selectman Kevin Lyden.
The almost 10-acre park is primarily used as a beach and boat launch for the 529-acre Gardner Lake. It neighbors the towns of Montville, Salem and Bozrah and has four campgrounds, one marina and dozens of private homes along its shores.
The park is run by the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection, which has been asked by local officials and lake-goers to provide more of a security presence.
A state official added that a parking fee is under consideration after the park has seen an increase in patrons using the free park this summer.
"It really has been discovered as a destination for folks. The use has expanded significantly over the past couple of years," said Tom Tyler, director of the state parks and public outreach division. "This summer we have very significant crowds across our system - particularly at places that have been lesser known in past years."
Gardner Lake State Park was added to the DEEP's list of properties in 2001. The DEEP's law enforcement division patrols the park and its boat launch on a daily basis and Montville police provide a water patrol of the lake. The park closes daily at sundown.
This year, arrests at the park are up nearly 300 percent from a year ago. Through Tuesday, DEEP's conservation police reported 63 arrests this year - with 50 of those related to parking and motor vehicle violations. Sixteen arrests were made all of last year, according to DEEP statistics.
Dennis Schain, a DEEP spokesman, attributed much of the increase in arrests to people improperly parking at the lake's boat launch when a parking lot for beach use reaches capacity.
Talks on the parking issues were part of a meeting last Thursday at the lake aimed at discussing ongoing concerns with residents. Tyler and two other DEEP officials attended.
So did state Rep. Ed Jutila, D-East Lyme, who said he is looking into potential legislation that would make it an infraction to swim outside of a designated swimming area. The law would be similar to one in place in Rhode Island.
Coming up with a new set of rules and regulations to help oversee the park and its lake would help curb some of the problems, Jutila said. He pointed out that the public can also help by calling DEEP enforcement (860-424-3333) to report disturbances.
"One thing is to step up enforcement," Jutila said. "One of the ways to do that - other than trying to have the DEEP enforcement people make more frequent visits - is to have lots of others eyes and ears out there. That means the public."
The state spent nearly $1 million in 2008 on a new boat launch at Gardner Lake. It includes a paved surface with three lots and 54 parking spaces and the improvements have boosted boat traffic at the lake.
Sue Coffee, who heads Friends of Gardner Lake, said the meeting with DEEP officials is starting to pay dividends.
The portable toilets have been moved to a different area and Coffee said there was an increased patrol presence last weekend. On Sunday she also noticed that a new sign was erected to instruct people to stay within marked buoys in swimming areas. It also noted that no lifeguard was on duty.
"They are addressing the issues," Coffee said of the DEEP. "We realize they don't have the funding to do this with every park. We realize that. We're lucky that we've gotten this much attention."