On hot, sunny days, the kind that have been common this summer, Katrina Smith of Palermo is sad, but not surprised, to see that her favorite swimming spot is often deserted.
In the past, Smith has gone practically every day to swim at Marshall Shore, a small public park on Lake St. George that is owned by the town of Liberty. This summer it’s different, because the town has banned out-of-town cars in the small parking lot, a move officials believe is necessary for safety reasons and to protect the park from overuse. But Smith and others who are used to going there to relax and swim said their access to Marshall Shore has been effectively cut off because the park is hard to get to without a car.
“People have been going there for generations, to sit there on the rocks and meet their friends. It was literally 85 degrees out on a recent day, and there was no one there,” she said, adding that she feels Liberty officials have gone too far. “It was pretty much an overstep. It seemed excessive, and I thought it was mean.”
But local officials said it wasn’t meanness at all. Rather, they felt compelled to do something after noticing over recent summers that the swimming area was getting so popular it was becoming a problem. Visitors often overflowed the 18-space parking lot just across the Marshall Shore Road from the lake. They would leave their cars lining the sides of the narrow, winding and fairly busy road. Officials said that on July 4, 2018, 72 cars were parked there, or 54 more than the lot can handle. This kind of overparking can leave the road impassable for emergency vehicles, officials said, and could create a pedestrian disaster.
“The danger of kids going from Marshall Shore to that parking lot — I can’t believe a child never got run over there,” said longtime Liberty Road Commissioner Tammy Reynolds, who also had noticed growing overuse issues. “There was trash, vandalism, tree roots were getting trampled. Just too many people.”
That’s why last spring she submitted an article for the annual town meeting that was intended to address the parking problem at Marshall Shore (or Marshall Shores, as the park is commonly referred to by locals). After discussion, Liberty residents adopted a parking ordinance that would limit parking to residents and property taxpayers, who now need a certified parking sticker from the town clerk. Vehicles without a sticker are ticketed, with the first offense just a warning and the second offense resulting in a $50 fine. The penalties mount, with a fourth offense resulting in a $150 ticket and the towing and impounding of the vehicle.
The ordinance went into effect May 15, and so far, it’s been successful at eliminating the parking problem, according to Reynolds and Liberty Town Administrator Kenn Ortmann.
“How it’s working depends on who you talk to,” the administrator said. “A lot of people have been disappointed. People who come to swim [but have to leave] — they’ve been very disappointed.”
Still, the move has been popular with locals.
“Almost every day that I’m down there, Liberty people stop and thank me,” Reynolds said. “I know the Liberty residents, especially the older people, like it. A lady stopped me last night. She said it’s been 36 years since she’s felt like she could go there, because of the parking and the hoodlums and the stuff that’s been going on.”
But that description feels overblown to people such as Smith and Jane Stairs of Montville, who works in Liberty and said that she has been going to Marshall Shore for 65 years.
“I like it because the water is cool, and it’s beautiful,” she said. “When I would go, we always would clean up after ourselves and other people.”
But after receiving a warning earlier this summer, she has not gone back.
“It didn’t feel good,” she said. “It just seems very mean-spirited.”
Last year, Smith noticed cars on the sides of the Marshall Shore Road on just a handful of hot days, and although she had heard some in Liberty were complaining about trash left behind, she never saw that herself. She wishes Liberty residents had opted to do something less draconian than banning parking for nonresidents.
“Maybe there’s a larger problem,” she said, describing how many Maine lakes have limited or no access for the public. “In Palermo we have Sheepscot Lake, an amazing lake, but it only has a boat ramp launch. Everything else is private.”
Liberty officials point out that the public can use Lake St. George State Park, which has facilities and a lifeguard on duty, but there is a fee of $5 per person per day for adult Maine residents. While Smith said her family can handle that sum, she noted that it may be out of reach for some of the folks she used to see at Marshall Shore. Besides, the state park feels different from Marshall Shore.
“It’s just more wild than the state park,” Smith said.
She suggests the town limit parking at the shore during the busiest times, perhaps between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m., but open it up during other hours. Ortmann said the town plans to hold a debriefing later this year about the parking ordinance and may discuss potential changes to it.
“Should we fine-tune some aspects of how we do this?” he said, adding that that could include opening up the parking to other people during specific times.
Reynolds said if out-of-town people really want to come to Marshall Shore, she believes they can find a way, adding that two boys who live in the neighborhood recently have put up a sign offering all-day parking for $5. Even though some folks are sad or even angry about the change, she said it’s worth it.
“If we’re going to save Marshall Shore, we’ve got to make an effort,” she said.
On Friday afternoon, it was clear that efforts to curtail vehicles were paying off. Although it was 80 degrees and sunny, there were just a few people swimming and even fewer cars parked at the shore. Of those cars, most had out-of-state plates, and one visitor from way out of town said she had no idea about the parking ordinance but was distressed to hear about it.
“That’s so sad,” said Rebeccah Hope of Brooklyn, New York, who was there with her family. “My husband always talks about how growing up in Maine, you can just pull over and jump in a lake. It would be really sad if Maine could be losing that openness and accessibility.”