Scarborough targets ‘wet suit wiggle’ at Higgins Beach

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SCARBOROUGH — On any given day, in almost any kind of weather, surfers show up at Higgins Beach to ride the waves. It’s considered one of Maine’s top surf spots, and a frequent destination for Portland-area surfers.

Trouble is, some of the neighbors don’t like to watch the wave-seekers wiggle in and out of their wet suits.

They find the wiggling offensive.

Really.

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Neighbors are so serious about this that the Town Council will consider a proposed ordinance to ban the wiggle — and all public dressing and undressing — when it meets next week.

The council also will take up a proposal to better control parking at the beach, including possibly installing metered parking and setting later parking hours.

The parking lot is now supposed to open at sunrise, but Melissa Gates, northeast regional manager for the Surfrider Foundation, said that doesn’t always happen.

And, when it doesn’t, early-morning surfers tend to park close to the beach, bypassing the town changing rooms, wiggling into their skintight wet suits on the beach instead.

“It’s perfectly normal behavior to change in and out of a wet suit at a beach or a parking lot,” Gates said. No one is advocating for public nudity, and police reports do not indicate there have been complaints about nudity.

So far this year, only one formal complaint has been made in response to public indecency on or near Higgins Beach, Scarborough Police Chief Robbie Moulton said Wednesday afternoon. The situation involved not a surfer but an elderly man who was off his medication.

Five noise complaints have been lodged in 2015, Moulton said.

“Anecdotally, people who live there say that there’s other stuff going on, but we have had (virtually) no formal complaints,” the chief said.

That isn’t to say that the incidents aren’t necessarily happening, he added.

“What one person considers serious and what another person considers serious are certainly two different things,” Moulton said. “If you talk to people living down there, they’ll tell you these things are serious, (while other members of the public) would say it’s just general behavior in a public area.”

What property owners are allegedly offended by, Gates said, is “the wiggle that people do to get in and out of wet suits.”

Moreover, state laws regarding public indecency are already in place, so writing a new ordinance would be superfluous, she said.

The few complaints means, opponents say, the proposed language prohibiting “the changing of clothes within the limits of any park or beach” is aimed specifically at surfers who wear wet suits, she said.

Gates’ nonprofit organization’s mission is to protect public access to beaches across the country at sunrise. The group is based in San Diego and has chapters across the country, including one in Thomaston, Maine.

Opponents also say the proposed changes for parking and dressing are indicative of an us-versus-them dispute between neighbors and surfers that continues to roil at Higgins.

In addition to outlawing dressing on the beach, the proposed ordinance would limit early-morning parking by delaying parking in 13 public spots along Bayview Avenue by one hour a day, from 6 to 7 a.m.

In 2010, some residents tried to limit long-term parking by proposing the installation of parking meters on a section of Bayview Drive.

In January 2011, the Town Council elected to allow year-round parking in 13 spaces on Bayview, to limit the time to one hour in the summer, and to ban nonresident parking along nearby streets. A town parking lot with room for more than 80 cars was opened two blocks inland, off Ocean Avenue; the rate is $10 a day per vehicle. In 2012, public changing rooms were built at the lot.

A neighborhood group spearheading the opposition, Higgins for All, has started a petition for those who oppose the changes. It claims the changes would only benefit the property owners and further restrict public access to the beach. As of Wednesday afternoon, more than 1,300 supporters had signed.

The group also hung banners over the weekend at Higgins Beach, urging residents to protect access to the beach by opposing the proposed amendments.

Gates noted that residents can’t rely on the town lot to be open at sunrise every morning, which invariably leaves all visitors – not just surfers – no choice but to park on Bayview Avenue if they want to use the beach before work.

The proposed parking restriction “really only serves to limit access to persons who are either of a working family, people who just want to get a quick walk or surf in before work, the elderly, and people who don’t want to or can’t physically walk (long distances),” she said.

The proposed changes will be read for the first time by the Town Council on Wednesday, Sept. 2.

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