BY JENNIFER SOLIS
---- — NEWBURY — With the unofficial start to summer looming next weekend, some Plum Island residents want to curb parking along the road that accesses a popular beach and warm weather recreation area.
Sunset Drive resident Leanne Eagan predicted the safety conditions for pedestrians and cyclists in her neighborhood will only get worse as summertime traffic swings into full gear.
Last September, Eagan and others raised concerns about hazards created when patrons of Plum Island Grille restaurant parked their cars along the marsh side of the street — they say, significantly narrowing the road and impairing visibility. Eagan informed selectmen last week that she feels the unsafe road conditions persist and constitute “an accident waiting to happen”. She called for temporarily revoking all parking privileges on Sunset Drive until town leaders can come up with a solution to address the safety problem.
But selectmen declined her suggestion, opting instead to wait for an analysis of the parking issues and possible solutions, anticipated from the Merrimack Valley Planning Commission in late June or early July.
Eagan said data provided by the Parker River Wildlife Refuge, which is accessed at the end of Sunset Drive, indicates an average of 273 people per day visit the sanctuary, with higher numbers of visitors during the summer months. This traffic, coupled with cars of restaurant patrons parked along the road often make it unsafe for residents of Sunset Drive to walk their dog or ride bikes with their kids along their own street.
“These are people who are paying taxes, who live there,” she reminded selectmen.
But Selectman Michael Bulgaris pointed out that both police Chief Michael Reilly and fire Chief William Pearson signed off on the new parking regulations before they were adopted by selectmen. Public safety officials have assured town leaders that emergency access is not a problem. Bulgaris noted that frequently cars parking along the street in the summer belong to guests of people renting homes there.
Reilly confirmed that limited manpower on some shifts makes it necessary for his officers to prioritize certain calls, such as a high risk domestic violence incident, over parking compliance issues on Plum Island. Still, the chief insists that when his officers see cars parked with tires on the roadway, they do find them in violation and issue tickets. After a recent complaint to police by Eagan, Reilly assigned an officer to specifically patrol the roadway for an entire weekend. Traffic and parking issues are also reported on Old Point Road, Southern Boulevard, and even portions of Northern Boulevard, he noted.
Selectmen assured the residents that the MVPC analysis is one of several avenues being explored to resolve the problem. “We’re thinking about these issues and not taking them lightly,” said Selectman Geoff Walker.
Because of the way it developed — from primarily summer cottages to larger year round homes – the island is “an urban planner’s nightmare,” said Selectman David Mountain, who formerly chaired the Planning Board.
“We’re dealing with a real mess,” that will require concrete solutions, he said.
Carole Doyle, a 16-year resident, wondered if overflow parking from the restaurant might be directed to a nearby lot at PITA Hall instead of onto the road.
A resident since 1969, Maurice Cassidy is frustrated by the lack of respect exhibited by restaurant patrons and other visitors to the area, particularly those who use his driveway as a turnaround point. Cassidy believes the onus is on the owner of the Plum Island Grille to be more proactive in reducing the public nuisance his patrons are creating and in seeking parking solutions for his business that are less intrusive on the neighborhood.
He contends that in all the years he has lived on the island there was never any legal parking along Sunset Drive. But Reilly says for at least as long as he has been police chief — since 2006 — cars have parked on the roadway.
Walker noted that often on Plum Island, matters which may not have been authorized initially have evolved to become “part of the fabric of the island.” Selectmen Chairman Joe Story agreed there were “an overwhelming number” of non-compliance zoning issues on Plum Island.
Ultimately, Mountain concluded the only solution might be to just make different zoning choices in the future. “It’s very hard to undo the past,” he said.
Selectmen send 'no parking' plan to curb