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Sound View parking lot owner sees it all

Old Lyme — Sandy Ziemba spends summer days in her airy and comfortably furnished garage, waiting for the crowds that will inevitably show up at Sound View Beach if the forecast in central Connecticut and the Springfield, Mass., area is for hazy, hot and humid weather.

She operates one of eight privately owned parking lots permitted by the town, parking up to 16 cars in the side yard of her Cape Cod-styled home on Swan Avenue.

She charges $10, $20 or $25, depending on the day of the week and the volume of day-trippers. A block and a half from the beach, her lot, she says, is always the last to fill up.

Parking is big business at Sound View in the summertime. The 90-foot public beach on Long Island Sound is closer than Misquamicut or Cape Cod for its clientele and boasts two of the state's few beachfront bars.

The limited street parking and the town-owned lot on Hartford Avenue fill up first on busy days, then beachgoers seek out the private lots. 

Once they're filled, chaos ensues. 

Green "No Beach Parking" signs line area streets, and orange cones and yellow tape mark off other prohibited parking areas.

"It's crazy," Ziemba said of a typical weekend day. "People get desperate when they come down and there's no parking. They go around in circles for hours. They beg, plead. Last week I was offered $200 to park a car. I said, 'I would if I could.'"

The town, which regulates the private parking lots and charges $30 annually per spot for permit renewal, is not issuing new permits because, with about 330 paid parking spaces and 1,400 cottages, First Selectwoman Bonnie Reemsnyder said, the beach area can't handle any more people.

Most of the private lots are passed on from generation to generation. Ziemba inherited hers from her longtime companion, Sebastian Bartolotta, when he died in 2011, and still calls the business "Bart's Parking." He had inherited the home from his parents and lived there for 60 years.

Ziemba said last summer she made $6,700, which barely covers the taxes on her property. This year, the season started slowly due to rainy weather, and she said she might have to reach into her pocket to pay the bills. The lot owners are required to pay taxes on their earnings. Sometimes customers will tip her a few dollars, Ziemba said, and she hopes, each year, to collect enough tips to pay for a weekend on Cape Cod. She's friendly with the police and the rangers who patrol the area, and said she regularly transfers any cash she collects into a safe.

On the Friday prior to July 4, morning fog and a brief shower gave way to perfect beach weather, but the damage had already been done, with forecasters suggesting it wouldn't be a great day at the shore. Ziemba only had a half-dozen cars all day. The next day wasn't any better. She had guided only one car into a chalk-lined spot when the annual Sound View Independence Day parade passed by her home. Ziemba had donated money for prizes for the parade, a small but jolly procession of marching bands, rescue vehicles, flag-bearing veterans, town officials and kids on bikes.

Ziemba is an alternate on the Sound View Commission and chairwoman of a parking subcommittee. She plants the flowers that adorn the flagpole area at the end of Hartford Avenue and this year filled two new planters near the beach association meeting hall. She hauls water to the plants on a wagon.

100 fewer spaces

While running the parking lot, she waves to kids who pass by on bikes and chats with people as they walk their dogs or stroll to the beach. She gets updates on the other parking lots from the young rangers in neon T-shirts and khaki shorts who help police with crowd control.

"I'm very aware of what goes on," she said. "I know everybody here. And when motion lights go on around the neighborhood, I get concerned."

There were reports, she said, of a "derelict" living in the El Morocco, one of two vacant buildings on Hartford Avenue whose owners bought them at foreclosure auctions and say they are waiting to develop them until sewers are installed in the area. The police investigated, and the building was fortified.

Town officials and owners of beach properties have strived for years to transform the honky tonk Sound View of old into a "family-oriented" place. They all but eliminated the packs of motorcyclists who used to roar into town on weekends and park two bikes to a space by changing the parking configuration.

But with each "improvement" the town makes to Sound View, there are fewer spaces to park. The new streetscape along Hartford Avenue, completed with a grant that paid 80 percent of the $900,000 price tag, has wider, handicapped-accessible sidewalks, bricked bump-outs, with benches, banner poles, parallel parking and a shared roadway for cars and bicycles. The project eliminated 22 parking spaces.  

"Systematically, we got rid of almost 100 spaces over the years," grumbled Lenny Corto, operator of Lenny's on the Beach, at a meeting of the Sound View Commission last week.

Visitors started parking earlier this season at the South Shore Landing, a small strip mall on Route 156, but town officials quickly took notice and asked the owners to post no parking signs.

Beachgoers in the past few years have been parking in the state-owned Shore Road rest area on 156 and walking about 1.5 miles to the beach with their strollers, umbrellas and often over-regulation-size coolers. The first selectwoman said she talked to state officials, who told her that just like other rest areas, there are no time limits for parking and no prohibitions against leaving cars.

Reemsnyder said she's spoken to the commander at Troop F about some of the issues at Sound View in the summertime and emphasized that speeding needs to be addressed.

Drinking and litter

While business owners work hard to attract people to Sound View, some property owners would rather have the neighborhood to themselves.

"They come in groups of 15 to 20," complained one local resident at the commission meeting. "They come by Uber," griped another. "The bars are attracting them," said a man who had witnessed a recent assault of a homeowner by two teens.

Ziemba likes the day-trippers, but also sees the problems that arise with overexposure to sunshine and alcohol.

"I've seen kids sitting on the trunks of cars, hanging out windows," she said. "I've seen people so drunk, they're puking on the street."

Customers often pop their trunks and want to start drinking as soon as they arrive; Ziemba picks up beer bottles and "nippers" along her fence line every day. The town only allows five-quart coolers on the beach, which visitors complain are not even big enough to fit sandwiches and soft drinks. Ziemba said she warns her parkers that their larger coolers won't be allowed.

She had to call police four years ago when a man came into her lot and started kicking and denting a car because he was mad at his friend, who owned the car. The owner, a highly intoxicated Hartford police officer "with arms this big" was angry when he returned to the car and threatened her, Ziemba said. Other parkers intervened, and a state trooper arrived a short time later.

A native of Meriden, Ziemba worked at Aetna and other jobs and raised a daughter alone. She met Bartolotta, a construction contractor, at Middletown's Harbor Park in 1984. She and her daughter were out celebrating one day and were trying to place a drink order at the crowded bar when Bartolotta, who knew the owner, came up to her and said, "Here, let me help you."

They started a relationship, and she eventually sold her house in Old Saybrook's Chalker Beach and moved into the Swan Avenue home. For more than 20 years, she helped Bartolotta with the business, sometimes sitting under a tree in the front yard with him and getting so bored, she said, that they would see how far they could spit cherry pits. They had good times together, spending several winters in St. Thomas. She cared for him during the final years of his life, when he suffered from congestive heart failure.

Ziemba said in the early 1990s, she opened a shop called "Sandy's Studio" in the former Kiddieland building on Hartford Avenue and sold hand-painted hats and bathing suits. The crowd of "mostly bikinis" was not interested in her cutesy products, she said. She also wrote a children's book called "Mr. Crabby Crab."

"I got my inspiration from my beach," she said. "Mr. Crabby Crab comes out and gets his claw caught in a tin can and his friends help him."


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