Cutchogue residents are petitioning to restore parking at Dave Allison Park after park district commissioners locked gates that have traditionally allowed access to parking on site.
A parking lot near the restrooms was covered with grass and fencing around the playground was taken down to expand green space in the park, cut costs on maintenance and enhance safety for park-goers, according to commissioners. Residents say there was no notice of the changes, which were made at the end of last summer, and the lack of parking has made it difficult for elderly and people with mobility issues to access the public space.
A petition mailed out to Cutchogue residents just after Memorial Day asks the Cutchogue New Suffolk Park District commissioners to “immediately restore parking and access for mobility impaired and families to Dave Allison Park at the end of Pequash Avenue in Cutchogue.”
“It HAD a permit-only parking area for 6-8 vehicles, with handicap parking and benches overlooking the bay, popular with residents who cannot access the beach,” the petition continues. “The parking lot/access drive is now GONE and the vehicle gate is locked … ‘Pedestrian access’ is through two gaps in the fence; far from the bathrooms/benches/beach stairs, and up a rough slope with no walkways or handrails.”
Parking on West Road has a ditch on the passenger side while the driver’s side faces traffic, according to the petition. Parking on Pequash Avenue offers access only to a “rough slope,” which can be dangerous for “families unloading beach gear and small children,” the petition says. “For the elderly or disabled, this is impossible.”
The petition calls the situation “unacceptable” and suggests it may be illegal under Section 504 of The Rehabilitation Act of 1973 and Title II of the Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990.
Section 504 is a federal law that “forbids organizations and employers from excluding or denying individuals with disabilities an equal opportunity to receive program benefits and services,” according to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.
Title II is a federal law that “prohibits discrimination based on disability by public entities, regardless of whether they receive federal financial assistance,” according to the U.S. Department of Education.
Debra Scuracchio, who lives close enough to walk to Dave Allison Park, sent nearly 300 copies of the petition in the mail on May 27. She and others have also planned a protest at the park on Sunday, June 5. As of June 1, 40 people had signed the petition.
Marjorie Spiro, 88, called the decision to remove parking spots at Dave Allison “an abomination.” The Peconic Landing resident has been swimming in the bay near the park for 60 years and still spends summers at a family home nearby.
“I park my car in the handicapped and I go down to the beach and I walk in the water. Everybody knows me there,” she said. “If they did it to save money for the young man who sits there, that’s an absurdity. I always backed into the handicapped spot so I could go out. I certainly was aware of the children; I drove a mile per hour.”
At a May 31 meeting, audience member Dennis Heaney — who described himself as a veteran with a bad heart — said it’s been a struggle to access the park without handicapped parking.
“We’d always go in the handicapped spot and I could get down the stairs,” he said. “I went there yesterday, I couldn’t even find a damn spot to park. When we did find a spot, I had to walk all the way down there. I thought I was going to drop dead. I got down that hill okay, but I could hardly get up it. I couldn’t breathe. And I just don’t understand why you guys did this.”
Park commissioners said they plan to wait for a site review before making any further changes to the park. They authorized up to $5,000 to cover the costs of an ADA report. Mr. Gardner, who is also chairman of the park district board, said he’s reached out to an engineer but hasn’t heard back yet.
“We want to make sure we’re doing the right thing because evidently, we didn’t get as much input as we probably should have before we did the change to the park so we’re looking to do the right thing this time around,” he said at the meeting. “We’re going to wait to make any changes until we get the recommendations from an engineer and the lawyers.”
“But you made the changes without an engineer,” Ms. Scuracchio chimed in from the audience. “Someone else went to [Town Supervisor] Scott Russell and the trustees and found out we need nothing. We don’t need drainage, we don’t need blacktop … We can just open up the gates, park where we were, and put a proper fence around the playground.”
“I want to wait until we get a proper report, an engineer’s report from an architect who has ADA knowledge to give us an overall plan that we can work from rather than do something that may not be the right thing to do,” Mr. Gardner responded.
Other audience members continued to question why the park can’t return to its previous state, prompting the commissioners to open up the meeting for a roundtable-style discussion. Each of the 20 people in the audience were given the opportunity to speak for two minutes.
“I’ve been a commissioner for the longest and it was actually my idea — John Gardner, take that down, John Gardner’s idea — to put the grass at the park,” Mr. Gardner said. “I brought it up to the commissioners a few years ago. We talked about it all the time … We didn’t want to put a fence around the playground area. I like to see it as open as possible because we like to see kids running around, having a good time, in a park. The concept for me was to make it more park rather than a parking lot, because before we put the grass in, it was about a third road and parking lot. Now it’s all park. That was part of my reasoning.”
He also pointed out that the district is saving money on two attendants there, and said there have been some incidents at night where people needed to be revived with Narcan. “We’d like to reduce the risk to the park and make it more parklike,” he said.
One woman said she nearly fell in the ditch near the entrance, while trying to access the park to see a strawberry moon at dusk. “There was absolutely no thought for people who might have mobility issues, for people who are young, with little kids in strollers,” she said.
“You know why the people are angry here? Because they didn’t have a say. That’s why the energy is so high,” someone added.
Dorothea Jordan, who lives near the park, pointed out a lack of diversity on the park district board. “I see five able-bodied men here,” she said, referring to park district staff sitting at a table in front of the room.
Her husband, Richard Jordan, said he reached out to an architect about costs to build a ramp to the beach at the park. “I spoke to several nonprofits about fundraising,” he said, noting that a few said they were willing to support a ramp.
A former park commissioner in the audience said he knows people who like the changes, including families with children who “feel much more comfortable not having traffic going through the park.”
“I think the park looks terrific. I like the grass,” said David Howe. “The people that are here, for the most part, have been here for the past few weeks. It’s a small group of people that probably represents some other people. But there’s another large group of people who are very happy with the park. I frequently will talk to people while I’m walking my dog, and we’ll be discussing it, and they’ll say how wonderful it is.”
Dave Bergen said as a new commissioner, he wasn’t involved in the decision-making last year, but emphasized he’s listening. He clarified that the town said it would not approve a handicapped parking spot on Pequash Avenue or a parking lot on West Road. Any parking area would need at least one handicapped spot.
Mr. Gardner told a reporter after the meeting that he spoke to people he knows who use the beach at Dave Allison before making the changes, and they liked the idea. There’s also been positive feedback from families with children, commissioners said.
“Obviously we do need to make sure that it’s accessible to everyone that wants to get in,” Mr. Gardner said. “Problem is, people that I know aren’t necessarily the people that are having issues. So, lesson learned on that front.”
Removing the parking lot is an idea that’s been thrown around for a few years now, he added. There wasn’t a public hearing before the decision was made but there was a vote on paying to add the grass at a regular public meeting.
“The only time we’ve ever had people at the meetings before is people asking about parking and the way the sticker program worked, and that was really it. We usually never had any interest in coming to the meetings,” he said.
The commissioners said at the meeting they plan to hire an attorney. Mr. Bergen told The Suffolk Times it’s not unusual for entities like park districts to retain legal counsel and pointed out that some people have talked about suing over the parking changes at Dave Allison Park.
“I would hope that people would be patient and know we are trying to do the right thing,” commissioner John Gardner said, when a reporter asked if the commissioners are concerned about a lawsuit. He said they plan to follow the advice of an ADA site review.
Mr. Jordan, who is a lawyer, said individuals can enforce ADA guidelines with lawsuits. “If you alter the vehicular passageway, among other things, and it adversely impacts disabled access, it violates ADA,” he said. “Well that driveway in there, that’s exactly what that is.”
He wrote a letter to the Suffolk County Office of People with Disabilities on June 1, cc’ing Suffolk County legislator Al Krupski (D-Cutchogue) and the Southold Town Board, town supervisor and town clerk. The letter requests that the town tells the commissioners to restore prior access.
“The Cutchogue-New Suffolk Park District continues to violate ADA since last September by curtailing access to the Dave Allison Park by disabled. This over objections from many residents,” he wrote. He notes that parking has been established there for decades and at least one spot was labeled as handicapped parking.