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Officials seek solution for Mount Baker trailhead

With Baker Mountain looming in the background, this sign shows where the village of Saranac Lake ends and where town of St. Armand jurisdiction begins on Forest Hill Avenue, which circles Moody Pond. (Enterprise photo — Griffin Kelly)

SARANAC LAKE — A committee is being formed by the town of St. Armand and village of Saranac Lake to tackle the issue of parking and road safety on Forest Hill Avenue around Moody Pond, particularly near the trailhead to Baker Mountain.

Organizers hope to find a solution to a pedestrian and parking danger that residents of the neighborhood say has gotten worse in recent years.

The group would include St. Armand Supervisor Davina Winemiller, Saranac Lake Trustee Rich Shapiro, North Elba Supervisor Jay Rand and state Department of Environmental Conservation Region 5 Acting Director Joe Zalewski. These officials are also looking for nearby homeowners and users of the road and trail to join the group.

Winemiller said the committee came out of a discussion she had with Shapiro two weeks ago.

Shapiro said he’s been aware of this issue for years, and that in that time there’s been lots of finger-pointing and not a lot of action. He said he’s glad to see everyone get together to work on a solution.

A line of cars is seen wrapping around Moody Pond on the St. Armand section of Forest Hill Avenue near the Baker Mountain trailhead. (Provided photo — Davina Winemiller)

What that solution will be is unclear at this point.

“At this stage in the game, any solution is a possible solution,” Shapiro said. “Anything’s on the table as far as I’m concerned.”

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 the many hikers it attracts.

In March, St. Armand approved two volunteer parking enforcement officers to issue tickets and warnings to drivers of improperly parked vehicles there, enforcing a local law the town adopted a year before.

Winemiller said the two officers have mostly issued warnings, with a few tickets. But hiking at Baker Mountain has not hit its busy season yet.

“That doesn’t go over well with visitors to the area, but I understand why they’re doing it,” Shapiro said of the tickets and warnings.

Shaprio said the village has been “beaten up” over this issue, and the only way to stop it is to resolve the problem.

“The 6er program is the scapegoat,” he said, referencing the popular hiking challenge village Mayor Clyde Rabideau introduced in 2013, which includes Baker. “I don’t believe that’s the cause, because every trailhead throughout the High Peaks are is having a dramatic increase in usage in the last couple years.”

Rabideau was hesitant at first when Shapiro brought up the committee at a recent village board meeting.

“When it comes to areas outside the village, I’m very reluctant to get involved,” he said. He added that by law, the village can’t spend money on resources outside the village line.

But later Rabideau clarified and said he supports the work group.

“I fully embrace collaboration with all the stakeholders on Moody Pond to meet the area’s challenges and plan for its future,” he wrote in an email. “Given the municipal boundaries, the answers will require commitment, cooperation and resources from all municipalities.”

Shapiro said two-thirds of Forest Hill Avenue is within the village, save the portion where the trailhead is in St. Armand. North Elba also holds a sliver of the road, and the DEC manages the wilderness area that includes the trail.

“If we don’t have dialogue, we’ll never get anything done,” Shapiro said.

Rabideau said he wants to make sure each government stakeholder would contribute financially to any solution. He said between 15 and 20% of the Saranac Lake tax base lives in St. Armand and pay for its services as well as the village’s.

“Maybe the village taxpayers should get a return on investment there,” he said.

Winemiller said the town has paid for the traffic signs planted in the ground along its stretch of the road.

Shapiro said figuring out how to pay for a solution will come much later.

“A flat-out statement of zero spending, until you know what’s even being asked for, is not a good approach,” Shaprio said.

“Cooperation is great, but it’s not a one-way street — literally,” Rabideau said at the meeting.

“It may be,” Shapiro said with a laugh.

He said this as a joke, but later said one possible suggestion would be to make Forest Hill Avenue a one-way or partial one-way street.

Winemiller said they’d consider doing a traffic study to see if this is viable.

Shapiro said anyone interested in joining the group should contact him at rich@gtgtandems.com or 518-354-3102. Its first meeting will be during the week of May 24. He also said anyone can also email him with comments, questions, suggestions or concerns.

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