300 turn out for Silver Sands State Park meeting

At a packed City Hall meeting Thursday night about the state’s plans to make improvements at Silver Sands State Park, Milford Mayor Ben Blake said he hopes the state re-thinks some of those plans.

During the meeting, one of about 300 residents in attendance turned to Blake and asked him about the plans. That’s when Blake expressed his displeasure with some aspects of it.

“The state is going to dump this on you,” the resident said to Blake, referring to a parking problem that has plagued East Broadway and the streets off of it for years. Instead of walking the distance from the Silver Sands parking lot to the beach, Silver Sands beach-goers often park on their streets, taking up precious parking. That will only get worse if the state starts charging people to drive into Silver Sands, the resident said.

Blake responded, “Hopefully this does not come to pass. I’m hoping the state will not charge residents to park.”

State Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) officials led the meeting at Milford City Hall Thursday night to air plans for park improvements, which include adding public bathrooms, changing areas, lifeguard and law enforcement space, and a snack bar with a wraparound deck. Once the improvements are complete, the DEEP intends to start charging a parking fee —  $9 during the week for state residents and $13 on weekends, plus tax. Now there is no parking fee.

Residents who attended the meeting asked a lot of questions and raised a number of concerns, many of which related to the parking fee.

While some say they think it’s simply unfair that residents will have to pay to park at a city-located amenity, the real concern voiced Thursday night was that the fee will send people parking on streets along East Broadway and in other neighborhoods near the park.

Speaking specifically about East Broadway, Blake said the city has done two parking studies over the past 15 years and knows there is a problem. He said city officials have asked the state for some park land to create resident parking, but the state is not in favor of that.

“I very much want to have a good solution to this,” Blake said.

Robert Vercellone said he lives on East Broadway and sometimes residents who don’t have driveways have to circle the road until they find a place to park. He and several neighbors said they see people parking along their street, carrying their beach chairs and towels to Silver Sands.

These neighbors want East Broadway and its side streets designated for residents only so that beach goers will not be able to park there.

“You’ve got to make residential parking,” Vercellone said. “You have to do something.”

One DEEP official said the agency has talked to the state Department of Transportation about turning East Broadway, which is a state road, over to the city. That way the city would be able to better control the parking situation.

However, the DEEP officials for the most part said they don’t think park neighbors will see their parking problem increase when fees are initiated. The DEEP officials said they don’t see a problem like that at some of the other state parks.
Parking fee
Susan Whalen, deputy commissioner of environmental conservation, said that while she knows residents would like to see a fee waiver for Milford residents, she said it wouldn't be fair.

“We charge this fee at other parks where we’ve had these kinds of improvements,” Whalen said. “We can’t exempt Milford residents when other Connecticut residents are paying at their parks.”

Tom Tyler, state parks director, pointed out that the fee is a parking fee, not an admission fee. So people who currently walk in or ride their bikes in from nearby streets will not have to pay, and people who cross the boardwalk from Walnut Beach will not have to pay.

“This is not an admission fee,” Tyler said.

DEEP officials also said there is a Charter Oak pass, which is free to senior citizens over age 65 and allows them free parking and entry at state parks; there is an annual pass that costs $67, and parking and entry to state parks is free for disabled veterans. Also, the parking fee is only charged during the summer months, between the weekend before Memorial Day and the weekend after Labor Day.

Those answers didn’t please too many in the audience.

State Rep. Kim Rose walked through the park prior to the meeting to show Speaker of the House Brendan Sharkey just how close the park is to residential neighborhoods. She pointed out during the meeting that there are three adjoining neighborhoods: Silver Sands, Walnut Beach and Meadowside, which could be impacted if park-goers go in search of free street parking.

State Rep. Pam Staneski said to the DEEP officials, “I don’t want to hear ‘I feel your pain’ or that you sympathize.”
Park Improvements

The DEEP officials described the improvements they plan and said they believe the amenities will bring people in and justify the parking fee they have to pay. The bathhouse would be close to the beach and will consist of three buildings: a concession stand, rest rooms and a first aid office. The bathhouse will be elevated and will be connected to the walkway that comes from the parking lot, creating a sort of shortcut to the bathhouse.

A maintenance building, including a garage, will be built farther back on the property and will make managing the park more efficient, DEEP officials said. Today, park workers have to bring their equipment in on trucks from other state parks.

In addition to a new ticketing booth, there also will be more parking. Philip Katz, consultant with Stantec of New Haven, which engineered and designed the park improvements, said parking will increase from 676 to 857 spaces. DEEP officials have said the increased parking should also help prevent people from parking on neighborhood streets.

State Sen. Gayle Slossberg asked several questions of the DEEP panel, including one about financing. She said the governor cut funds from the state budget and she wondered how the DEEP can justify spending money on a state park when local hospitals and mental health agencies will see funding reductions.

“I’m concerned that I will have to tell my constituents, ‘You don’t have mental health services but you can go to the park’,” Slossberg said.

The DEEP panel maintained that the state has been working on the Silver Sands project for many years, already invested millions of dollars into it, and have to add improvements to make it safe and accommodating for the 250,000 people who go there every year.

“We do think the resources are sorely needed; we need to bring basic services to Silver Sands,” said Tyler, adding later that “relying on porta potties is inadequate.”

According to Blake, a meeting next week is just as important as this one was and he encouraged residents to attend. That public hearing, regarding a tidal wetlands permit at the park, is scheduled for Thursday, Oct. 1, at 6:30 p.m. at Milford City Hall.