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Old Lyme - Beachgoers flocking to Sound View and business owners opening their shops for the season are being greeted by a new parking system aimed at solving a longstanding problem.
Diagonal, pull-in parking on the southbound lane of Hartford Avenue, accompanied by kiosks to collect parking fees in two-hour increments, have replaced parallel parking in which town parking rangers collected fees.
The new parking features are part of an improvement project for the Sound View area, which the town's Sound View Commission recommended along with new parking policies. But the new configuration, which reduces the number of street parking spaces from about 70 to 54, has drawn both praise and criticism.
At Sound View, which features a carousel, arcade, cottages and beachside bars and is the town's only public beach, parking and overcrowding have been considered longstanding issues. In 2010, the town reduced the town-owned parking lot there from about 90 spaces to 70 to address overcrowding concerns. Last summer, the decision to charge for Hartford Avenue street parking led to some criticism from business owners.
Dino DiNino, who owns the Captain Video arcade and the Cool Moose, a deli and convenience store, supports the new parking kiosks, which he said allow the town to collect fees needed to maintain the area. But he questioned the safety of diagonal parking on a narrow street where people often retrieve beach chairs and bags from their trunks. He also opposes the reduction in spaces.
"If you were going to change the parking, then check with the businesses first," he said one sunny afternoon on Hartford Avenue last week.
Free 30-minute spaces for business patrons are clustered this year in groups of five on both the upper and lower halves of the street. DiNino said that last year, he had two free 15-minute spaces in front of his shops.
The new arrangement could make it harder for delivery people and patrons to access stores and for business owners to monitor parking, he said. DiNino said he was concerned that if issues arise from the parking, small businesses could "dry up" in the long run.
Designed according to state Department of Transportation standards, the new parking design is part of a project to install permanent restrooms, a picnic area and a bike path at Sound View, which the town's Sound View Commission presented to residents this year.
While the town received a grant to cover 80 percent of the costs, the parking reconfiguration was not eligible for reimbursement since it was conducted in advance of the overall project and residents voted to spend $27,300 for the kiosks and layout change this spring.
The new parking configuration provides safety benefits, said Sound View Commission Chairman Frank Pappalardo. For example, the diagonal parking on one side of the street eliminates the need for drivers to make a U-turn to move their car to a new spot on the other side of the street.
Pappalardo said some spaces dedicated for business patrons went largely unused in the past. Clustering the spaces provides convenient parking for all the businesses, he said.
"It's certainly an adjustment period for our guests and some businesses," he said.
At last week's Board of Selectmen meeting, First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder referenced letters she received, including one from a Swan Avenue resident supporting the new parking and kiosk system as appropriate for the area. Others have said the kiosk system, which lets visitors pay for parking in two-hour increments with no limit, now lets them come and go as they please, an improvement.
Reemsnyder also read aloud a letter from Frank Maratta, owner of the Pavilion Restaurant and an alternate on the Sound View Commission, who sought 18 additional spaces in the town parking lot to make up for the loss of street parking.
She said the town is considering the feedback it gets. The town is willing to adjust the number of spaces for free business parking if needed, she said.
"Let's just give it a chance and see how it works," she said. "We will all utilize the information we have going forward."
The board did not take action last week on Maratta's request to add more parking to the town lot. Selectman Arthur "Skip" Sibley said he would find it hard to support adding more spaces there in light of crowding issues; when he visited Sound View last weekend, he said it was crowded and the beach could not accommodate more people.
The board referenced the need to strike a balance at Sound View.
"All of the decisions we made over the past two or three years have been to try to find the right balance there," Reemsnyder said.
While the town wants people to enjoy Hartford Avenue, she said, adding more parking spaces would not necessarily translate into more business. It could just lead to a need for more town public safety and maintenance resources, she said.
Police Officer Thomas Heinssen said at last week's selectmen's meeting that the kiosk machines worked well over the last crowded weekend and that he did not hear of any parking issues other than a complaint from a business. He said the new parking configuration led to fewer traffic problems, and officers would continue to monitor for safety.
Some visitors to Sound View last week saw benefits in the new design but questioned a lack of free parking in front of businesses.
Gail and Bob Antoniac of Old Saybrook, who were enjoying ice cream outdoors on tables by the carousel on a warm afternoon, said they have been coming to Sound View for years. They said the new diagonal layout was easy for cars to pull into and could slow down vehicles and help control traffic.
But they disagreed with placing free business parking away from a shop's entrance, because it could pose challenges for the elderly or handicapped.
Gail Antoniac added that 30 minutes wasn't enough time to enjoy some of the activities she'd like to come to Sound View for, such as taking her granddaughter for a carousel ride and ice cream.
"I don't think you should have to pay," her husband said. "If people have to start paying, they won't come."
Old Lyme will hold an informational meeting on the Sound View improvement project at 7:30 p.m. on June 14 at the Shoreline Community Center on Hartford Avenue.