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Is Old Lyme using gates to funnel cars to its municipal lot?

Old Lyme — The increasingly frequent closure of gates at the top of Portland and Swan avenues that effectively turn them into one-way streets has local parking lot operators complaining the town is costing them business. 

The gates are part of a system that funnels all incoming Sound View beach traffic through Hartford Avenue, the main thoroughfare for the neighborhood. Hartford Avenue is also where the town has installed a kiosk for paid street parking and its municipal parking lot.

Private parking lots on Swan, Portland and Pond avenues have now been reduced to overflow parking for the town lot instead of direct traffic, according to their operators.

Angelo Grasso, who has been offering parking spots to day-trippers on Swan Avenue for almost two decades, spoke from his lot Monday morning. The weather was hot and sunny. The gate at the top of Swan Avenue went up at 9:26 a.m. By approximately 11:30 p.m., there were about two dozen cars in the town lot and none in his.

"The cars are all being directed right into the town parking lot," he said.

Rita Henson has a lot on Pond Avenue, which connects Hartford and Portland Avenues. There were three cars in her lot around 11:30 a.m., which she said would be more like 10 on a nice day without the gates closed at the top of the street.

Grasso and Henson said the gates have been going up more often this year, and not just on the weekends as has happened intermittently in the past.

Grasso said gate closures in the past typically occurred only a handful of times per year to avoid cars driving up and down the smaller side streets. That was usually when available lots had filled up and people were driving up and down the streets looking for a place to park. Now, he's seeing the gates go up earlier and more often.

Henson said there's no rhyme or reason to when the police department closes the top of Portland and Swan to two-way traffic.

"They just do what they feel like doing to inconvenience the public from coming here and enjoying the beautiful beach," she said. "They don't want the public here."

Both Grasso and Henson accepted the need to put out the one-way gates when there are crowds.

"But only when it starts to get busy, and only if fairness of the parking occurs," Grasso said. "Right now, all my customers are going to the town parking lot. And I find that very unfair."

Joseph Malinguaggio, who's been running a parking lot on Portland Avenue for 50 years, said he can see the cars going into the town lot as his sits empty.

He described two "beautiful, beautiful" days last week: "One day I had six cars, the next day I had six cars," he said.

Resident State Trooper Matt Weber told The Day last week that the gates on Portland and Swan avenues, with one-way signs attached, are closed "on hot days" when police know there will be a lot of people in the area.

Grasso said he brought his concerns to Weber but was told private business matters weren't the resident state trooper's concern.

"His answer to me was 'advertise,'" Grasso said. "How arrogant is that? To know that you're shutting me totally off and telling me to advertise. The only way somebody can be that arrogant is if they know there are no repercussions above them."

Grasso said he spoke with First Selectman Tim Griswold last week at length, but that the one-way signs went up again the next morning. Grasso said a subsequent message left with the first selectman had not been returned.

When asked Monday about the issue as he sat in his state police cruiser in the town parking lot, Weber said to "talk to Mr. Griswold."

Griswold said Monday afternoon that he was "not particularly plugged in" to the rationale behind the morning gate closures.

He said he would talk to Weber.

"I think Matt would have the best handle on why it's starting early and it should be open for discussion. If he's got a good, solid reason, then it's worth listening to," Griswold said.

When asked who is ultimately responsible for making decisions about restricting the roads to one-way traffic, he said he wanted to speak with Weber in order to "understand what the circulation issue is."

"I think when you have a very busy time, if you have cars entering all three streets, milling around, it's pretty confusing. I think as it gets quite busy, it's quite sensible when you have a single point of entry and then people can get out and then branch around," he said.

Griswold acknowledged the difficult position the Swan Avenue operators are in because the one-way traffic pattern doesn't naturally circulate onto that street as it does onto Portland Avenue.

Cars that make it down to the bottom of Hartford Avenue and don't find parking typically turn right onto Pond Avenue and then right onto Portland Avenue to find additional parking options there. But traffic driving down Hartford Avenue toward the beach can also make left turns roughly halfway down the street to access two private parking lots on Swan Avenue — if the drivers know the lots are there.

Griswold said perhaps signage could be installed on one of the side streets connecting to Swan in order to let drivers know there are two lots there. He also suggested an Old Lyme Police Department Ranger could be positioned at the top of the streets to direct traffic to the various lots.

"I think that can be improved," he said.

But he was skeptical the altered traffic pattern would have much of an effect on the Portland Avenue parking lots.

"Assuming it's a busy, sunny day, you'd think there'd be more than enough for everyone at some point," he said.

Over on Swan Avenue Monday morning, resident Gary Carra reiterated the gates seem to be going up earlier than they have in the past.

"I think it discourages people from coming," he said. "It seems like they're trying to keep out-of-towners away, period."

Town officials for years have been trying to change an area that, for much of the past century, had a notoriously seedy reputation. Multiple streetscape improvement projects have been undertaken to beautify the area and make it safer, but they have also cut down on the number of available parking spots. More recently, there has been talk of significant increases to parking fees for beachgoers and increased permit fees for private lot owners.

The first selectman disputed the idea that the town is trying to keep anyone out.

"I can't see that that's the case," Griswold said. "I think the motivation would be to minimize the confusion of having people circulating. Because not everybody knows where they're going."



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