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Questions, concerns arise at Keene hiker parking meet

Keene town Supervisor Joe Pete Wilson Jr., with town councilor Teresa Cheetham-Palen at his side, speaks to residents about ways the town tried to accommodate the influx of hikers this past summer during a meeting at the Keene Valley firehouse Wednesday night. (Enterprise photo — Elizabeth Izzo)

KEENE VALLEY — For the first time in months, the Garden parking lot was empty on Wednesday.

Hikers continued to trickle into the hamlet of Keene Valley past Columbus Day, but as the temperature dipped this week, so did the steady stream of tourists to this trailhead pinch point.

With the arrival of the shoulder-season, the town of Keene is shifting gears from on-the-ground response to planning for next year. At a community meeting on the issue at the Keene Valley firehouse Wednesday night, residents weighed in with concerns and ideas as Wilson gave an overview of the road ahead and behind as the town pieces together a strategy.

At the local level, Wilson said there has been some discussion of whether the town should expand or reconfigure the parking lot at Marcy Field and charge hikers to park there, thus further alleviating parking problems and shoring up more revenue to offset the cost to local taxpayers of accommodating visitors.

He has spoken with administrators of the local school district about possible ways to collaborate, he said, whether by encouraging students to volunteer as stewards or by sharing the shuttle during the off-season.

Wilson has also applied for a $100,000 smart growth grant through the DEC. He says if the town receives that grant, it could alleviate the cost of frontcountry steward salaries for three years and pay for improvements to the town trails, giving residents a better amenity and visitors another option for outdoor recreation.

“I’m looking for creative solutions that alleviate the neighborhood problems,” he said.

Hiker information center?

— Wilson also unveiled a preliminary floor plan for an information center at Marcy Field.

The lodge would provide a central location for visitors to go to get some direction when trailhead lots are full, he said, and could also function as an outpost for state Department of Environmental Conservation or Parks staff.

He estimated the building would cost between $1 million to $1.2 million to build.

State Sen. Betty Little, R-Queensbury, has pledged $300,000 toward the project.

But Wilson said he was reluctant to put the remaining expense on the shoulders of the town’s some-1,000 taxpayers, and the project likely wouldn’t move forward unless the town could secure outside funding for the project.

“But this is part of our discussions,” he said.

Wilson reflected on a confrontational encounter he had with a couple from Montreal earlier this year, an incident about which a story was published in the Enterprise. He said he thought more about why the man, Michael Farmer, had been so angry after he had informed him he was parking illegally. Farmer alleged at the time that Wilson was the one who was angry.

Wilson said he thought about how to reach hikers with information about hiking in the High Peaks before they made the journey, and ways to better receive them when they arrive.

“I think with these huge numbers that’s going to be more and more important,” he said. “Getting to hikers is going to be a big component to how we manage this.”

Summer took a toll

For Keene, it was a long — and expensive — summer.

Wilson told residents the cost of running a hiker shuttle — paired with other expenses like salaries for town employees to man trailhead parking areas, port-a-potty rentals to curb human waste in residents’ yards, and the purchase of “no parking” signs for town roads — took a bite out of the town’s $1.2 million budget.

On the shuttle alone, the town spent $39,739 this year. That’s $18,109 more than the budgeted cost of running the shuttle seven days a week during the spring and summer. The money spent beyond what was budgeted came from the town’s contingency fund and reserves.

And though parking tickets were written, Wilson said a lot of the revenue from those tickets hasn’t materialized — whether because signs installed by the state Department of Transportation in May weren’t installed correctly, causing the town justice to throw out some of the cases, or because people simply refused to pay them.

Some hikers even went so far as to drop off their parking tickets at the town hall with rude notes indicating they wouldn’t be paying, according to Wilson.

The DEC’s roadside parking ban alongside Route 73 had the effect, in some cases, of not deterring hikers but pushing them further away from trailheads and onto town roads.

He reiterated his concern that visitors having negative experiences here could have a significant impact on the local economy.

“We are getting a backlash,” he said. “We have these beautiful mountains, and we’re telling people to come, but we’re not ready for it.

“I don’t want to chase people away or see them resent the town, but that’s happening on its own.”

Residents share concerns

Residents shared a variety of concerns stemming from the influx of hiker traffic.

Some shared stories of trails, once-hidden gems, suddenly packed. Others an inability to enjoy the trails themselves despite living here because of the number of people, and concerns that efforts to shore up revenue from tourists — like charging for parking — could prove costly for residents who hike often.

Nate Jeffery, who once worked for the DEC, said he’s concerned that the state’s planned relocation of the Cascade trailhead to the Mount Van Hoevenberg Olympic Sports Complex could have the effect of pushing more hikers to the Keene Valley trailheads. He said the relocation would likely add an additional mile to the route, and that could deter some people.

Rusty Hall, chief of the Keene Valley Volunteer Fire Department, said hikers should have to secure permits just like hunters and fishermen.

“I don’t see why, as a group, we aren’t asking the state to do that,” he said. “I think we’re going to kick the can down the road unless we set a limit.”

Dan Plumley, a longtime wilderness advocate and founding member of Adirondack Wild: Friends of the Forest Preserve, said the confusion and frustration seen at the trailheads in Keene Valley this summer was a result of planning that wasn’t comprehensive and targeted just one part of the issue.

A comprehensive plan that takes into account the frontcountry, backcountry and resource management is necessary, he said.

“I’ve got to tell you,” he said. “The surge is going to continue. And what we don’t know is going to hurt us.”

A work group connected to the town’s master plan effort is collecting feedback from residents on the hiker parking issue. The workgroup will meet Dec. 2 at 7 p.m. in the Keene Town Hall. Residents are invited to attend. Otherwise, comments are being accepted via email at keenestrategy@gmail.com.