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Town wrestles with parking problem at Baker trailhead

St. Armand will add 2 volunteers to ticket violators. Tricky spot is just outside Saranac Lake village line

Seven cars are parked along Forest Hill Road Friday near the trailhead to Baker Mountain. Most are in a zone where it is legal to park, but the car on the left, from Pennsylvania, is parked well into the road and could receive a ticket from the town of St. Armand. (Enterprise photo — Aaron Cerbone)

SARANAC LAKE — For years, the trailhead to Baker Mountain has been an area of concern for pedestrians, drivers and residents. Hikers park by the dozens on Forest Hill Avenue around Moody Pond to hike the popular small peak.

On Tuesday, the St. Armand town board agreed to formalize two new volunteer parking enforcement officers to issue tickets and warnings to drivers of improperly parked vehicles there, enforcing a local law the town adopted around a year ago. The board will vote on approving these positions at its March 9 meeting, after a job description has been written up.

Until now, St. Armand Supervisor Davina Winemiller has been the one issuing tickets and warnings herself.

“I’ve had some people say some really nasty things to me, but the bottom line is the reason the St. Armand town board passed this local law is for the safety of our residents and visitors — period,” Winemiller said Wednesday. “It’s not to punish people or to dissuade people from enjoying the pond and the mountain. It is for safety.”

While issuing tickets last year, she said she saw a local woman with a baby stroller dive out of the path of an SUV, which was on the wrong side of the road because vehicles illegally parked on the other side were edging out into its lane.

A line of parked vehicles wraps around Moody Pond on Saranac Lake’s Forest Hill Avenue in fall 2018. (Provided photo — Town of St. Armand)

Parking problem

Though most of Forest Hill Avenue is in the village of Saranac Lake, the northern corner — a 0.2-mile stretch of road containing the Baker Mountain trailhead — is outside the village limits, which means the town of St. Armand has jurisdiction.

The start of the mile-long hiking trail to Baker’s summit is in a unique location compared to similar mountains in the area. It is in the middle of a neighborhood, and there is no parking lot to accommodate all the hikers it attracts.

The Baker trail’s short length, rewarding view and location in Saranac Lake, the Adirondack’s Park’s most populous community, make it immensely popular for locals and visitors alike. It’s especially busy in summer and fall, but it gets steady traffic year-round. On Friday there were at least seven cars parked there.

“It’s been kind of a nightmare for the folks that live there,” Winemiller said Wednesday. “It’s a real problem.”

Town officials’ main concern is pedestrian safety. The Moody Pond loop on Forest Hill Avenue is also a popular walking and biking circuit for locals. The narrow road already features several blind curves and lacks a sidewalk.

Winemiller said the parking problem has gotten worse in recent years as Baker’s promotion and popularity among tourists has risen, due to its inclusion in the Saranac Lake 6er hiking challenge.

Baker and Ampersand Mountain, 8 miles west of Saranac Lake, have the heaviest use of the 6er peaks, according to state Department of Environmental Conservation spokesperson Lori Severino.

“Baker Mountain has always been kind of a local spot,” Winemiller said. “Mayor Clyde Rabideau, trying to generate interest in the Saranac Lake area, came up with the 6er program and put that on the radar for people to hike.”

Unfortunately, she said, the trailhead is in St. Armand, which has to deal with the influx of visitors.

Rabideau said he walks the loop often and has not seen much illegal parking since the town put up its signs.

“They must believe there should be parking enforcement officers,” Rabideau said of St. Armand officials. “They’re acting the best way they can, just as I do. … They’re doing what they think is right, and I respect that.”

The way town and village lines are drawn also creates a strange plowing situation on Forest Hill Avenue. Winemiller said the town sends a plow truck from its garage in Bloomingdale over to Saranac Lake — 7 miles each way — to plow its 0.2-mile section of road when it snows.

When cars are parked in the road, she said that makes it hard for plows to clear the whole lane. When a lane is not properly plowed, that leads hikers to park farther into the street, exacerbating the safety problem, she said.

The law and enforcement

The town board adopted a local parking law in March 2020, specifically because of the parking issue on Forest Hill Avenue, allowing it to designate “no parking” areas in town and to ticket violators.

Each infraction comes with a small fine and an appearance ticket for St. Armand Town Court.

The supervisor and board were given power to issue such tickets and to hire enforcement officers if needed, which the board now plans to do.

Last summer Winemiller was down at the trailhead issuing tickets and warnings for 53 days straight, she said. She said she sometimes went there five times a day.

She said she always writes tickets for $25 fines, the least amount possible, though the law permits for higher fees.

“It’s more about education,” Winemiller said. “My intention is safety.”

These tickets have no surcharge because they are not for a state law infraction. Winemiller said the tickets and fines can be mailed in.

She also writes warnings, a pre-printed message she carries letting drivers know they are parked dangerously or illegally. She’s never had a car towed, she said.

Over the course of the summer, Winemiller said she handed out 500 warning tickets and 200 regular tickets.

Whenever a resident called her with a parking concern, she went down. She was there on holidays — Christmas Eve, New Year’s Eve, the 4th of July — and only did not respond when she out of town meeting with a dying family member.

“I need a day off sometimes,” Winemiller said. “We work for our families. When something happens with your family you drop everything and run.”

Winemiller said two men who had asked the board to address the parking issue have volunteered to take up the enforcement position. She said both are retired corrections officers living in the neighborhood, and she believes they would be good fits for the job because they are trained in deescalation.

A ticket may be issued for, among other things, parking a vehicle in a way that impedes the flow of traffic on a public road, parking between “No Parking” or “No Parking this side of street” signs, parking that obstructs a public or private driveway, and parking that blocks the entrance to a hiking trailhead.

Winemiller said she tickets people if they are parked in no-parking zones or if they are parked in a parking zone but have not made an effort to pull off the road.

“When I drive down there, if I drive around and their vehicle is in the road in such a manner that I have to enter the other lane to drive around them, they get a ticket,” Winemiller said. “If they clearly attempted to pull off the road, I’ll give them a warning.”

Board pushed to formalize

“We can certainly change things if it gets too personal,” Council member Joseph Bates said.

Bates said he was happy with Winemiller’s research into the questions the board had previously voiced. She first checked if any other law enforcement agency could issue tickets on Forest Hill Avenue.

“I think it’s pretty obvious that we, the town of St. Armand … are going to have to be the ones to issue the parking tickets,” Winemiller told the board Tuesday. “This is our local law, our parking law.”

She asked the Saranac Lake Police Department if it can issue parking tickets in that area, but since the department’s jurisdiction ends at the St. Armand town line, it cannot. She said the Essex County Sheriff’s Department employs three deputies covering 18 towns, and that Sheriff David Reynolds said they could only come to the Baker trailhead for an emergency or on specific days planned ahead.

Winemiller said she received no response from State Police Troop B.

“I think that’s kind of pretty telling of how busy they are and how willing they would be to help us here,” she said at the meeting.

Council member Don Amell suggested formalizing an unpaid position of “parking enforcement officer” in St. Armand and having an application process. He said the two volunteers Winemuller mentioned should apply, but he would like a formal application process to keep it “above board.”

“In the past we’ve gotten ourselves into issues when we’ve just said, ‘OK we’re going to let Harry do this job,’ and then someone says, ‘Well, I might have liked to have done that,'” Amell said.

Council member Jennifer Fuller said she agrees the position should be formalized and added that the town should write up a job description. She said when these two “retire” from the job, the town will have a description for the position it needs to fill.

Council member Karl Law concurred, saying a job description will also be a good way to let the parking officers know what the town expects them to do.

Winemiller also contacted the town’s insurance company and said its policy covers volunteer employees. She also asked Essex County Attorney Dan Manning if there would be a conflict of interest in hiring residents of the Moody Pond neighborhood to the position because they live nearby. He told her there would not.

Winemiller also said she learned that the officers would be covered by Essex County worker compensation if they are hurt on the job.

She said the town will provide each of them with an orange vest, a copy of the local parking law and traffic ticket warnings she has printed up. She will train them.

“It’s not a difficult task,” she said. “It’s not a time-consuming position, but it’s a nonstop thing.”

Winemiller said people looking to hike Baker without clogging up the road or risking a ticket should park a little farther into the village and walk over.

“There’s a parking lot in town, and it’s just a hop, skip and a jump,” Winemiller said. “If you’re going for a hike, why not hike another quarter-mile? There’s lots of parking in town that is free and available.”

She said she’s spoken with the DEC about making a parking area by the railroad tracks when it takes over the rail corridor from the state Department of Transportation and coverts the tracks to a trail.

The DEC said solutions to the Baker parking problem are hard to come by.

“DEC continues to work with local municipalities and land owners to identify possible solutions to parking congestion,” Severino wrote in an email. “The DEC lands have minimal frontage along this road, which limits parking solutions on state land at this location.”

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