Officials address issue on space for parking in White Mountains

  • “No Parking” signs are seen along the Kancamagus Highway at the entrance to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead in Lincoln on Saturday, July 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

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    "No Parking" signs are seen along the Kancamagus Highway at the entrance to the Lincoln Woods Trailhead in Lincoln on Saturday, July 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • Parked cars creep beyond the parking lot just outside the Lafayette Place Campground and Lonesome Lake Trailhead in Franconia Notch State Park in Franconia on Saturday. ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff

  • Orange cones mark no parking areas as Lydia Cronkhite and her husband Jonah, of Nobleboro, Maine, emerge from a bike trail near the Lafayette Place Campground in Franconia Notch State Park in Franconia on Saturday, July 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

  • A near-full parking lot at The Basin is seen in Franconia Notch State Park in Lincoln on Saturday, July 8, 2017. (ELIZABETH FRANTZ / Monitor staff)

Monitor staff
Published: 7/8/2017 11:26:07 PM

Gregory Sullivan’s vacation home is on a rural road in Conway. It’s hard to imagine any reason why hundreds of cars would regularly park there, lining both sides of the street.

Except for this: It’s directly across from Diana’s Baths – an easily accessible waterfall and natural play area that’s one of the state’s worst-kept secrets.

In fact, taking a trip there is listed as the 10th best thing to do in New Hampshire by TripAdvisor, and while internet-age publicity has attracted more and more cars over the past decade, there was nothing to stop them from using the roadside as their parking lot.

This made Sullivan, a 64-year-old attorney whose family rented the home for decades before he bought it in 1989, anxious that the cars were creating a safety hazard, he said.

“I’ve never really counted, but if someone told me there were 500 cars parked on West Side Road, I wouldn’t have doubted it,” he said. “I was just afraid we were going to hear one day the screeching of brakes accompanied by a real, tragic injury or death. Thank God that hasn’t happened.”

But even if Conway’s problem is now solved – with the state’s approval of a parking prohibition – a similar situation exists at many of New Hampshire’s most popular natural attractions – lakes, rivers and trailheads, where the vehicular demand far exceeds the parking supply.

The practical rule throughout the White Mountains is that drivers can park in seemingly illegal and potentially dangerous places, so long as they’re near a tourist destination.

Officials from several agencies, however, are thinking about the future and trying to devise a plan that dissuades these parking arrangements without harming the tourism industry.

‘We don’t do anything’

Perhaps the chief example of this phenomenon is Franconia Notch, where drivers overflowing from the adjacent lots routinely park their cars on the narrow shoulder of Interstate 93 and walk along the highway to get to the state’s most popular trailhead.

The ridgeline above is one of the most magnificent views in the Whites, and it’s within a day’s drive of 70 million people.

Many of those cars are parked within the town limits of Lincoln, which also hosts another overflowing trailhead at Lincoln Woods, where drivers park along the Kancamagus Highway.

Lincoln police Chief Ted Smith returned a phone call while on vacation in Cape Cod last week to say that the de-facto parking lot on the edges of the Kanc is part of the national forest, and not under his town’s jurisdiction.

“It means that we don’t do anything. The national forest has their own police department, and we will ticket if it says ‘no parking,’ but there are so many areas that don’t have any signs up,” he said. “We’ve talked to them in the past about that, but there’s really not much you can do.”

Smith said the interstate through Franconia Notch is “even more concerning” as it’s “really a deadly place to park.”

“There’s cars all over the place and we cannot ticket. That’s an accident waiting to happen,” he said. “We’ve complained and everything else. State police can’t even ticket.”

If state and local police can’t or won’t ticket where there’s no signage, that leaves only the state parks and the forest service, two organizations whose missions aren’t law enforcement.

Last week, in response to an inquiry into whether the forest service would ticket cars parked outside the confines of their lots, Tiffany Benna, spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said its officers can ticket cars that are in areas with “no parking” signs – such as the span of road just outside of Lincoln Woods.

Benna didn’t say whether this was a regular practice, nor did she address the vast area nearby that isn’t signed.

State parks spokeswoman Amy Bassett didn’t respond to a request for comment.

The Conway solution

When Sullivan went to his local police and selectmen in Conway, seeking to change the parking rules on his street, he found their support. And the town kept pressing when the Department of Transportation didn’t immediately post signage on the state-owned road, where it has sole authority.

“The whole thing got accelerated a little quicker in Conway because they were adamant,” said Bill Boynton, the DOT spokesman.

Now, local police can hand out parking tickets to violators – and they do. The Conway Daily Sun reported that police issued 38 fines over the Memorial Day weekend following the signs’ installation.

Just ahead of that weekend, the Conway selectmen also increased the parking fine for West Side Road by 900 percent – from $10 to $100, the Sun reported, sending a fairly clear message.

But while this solution cuts down on crowding and potential dangers, the official lot wasn’t expanded, so it does so at the cost of tourism, which sits on the other side of that balancing act.

Just a month after the parking prohibition went into effect, a TripAdvisor user visited the spot to find the supplied parking lot full. He left a black mark on the usually glowing review page.

“Parking doesn’t keep up with the demand, parking for 30 or so cars and no where else to go,” he wrote in his one-star review. “There are ‘no parking’ signs up and down the road to prohibit parking outside of the parking area.”

‘Options are on the table’

The parking predicament at Franconia Notch involves a number of agencies: it’s an interstate highway in a state park that is used to access national forest lands.

Discussions are beginning about how to handle the parking overload, while remaining cognizant of the importance of tourism.

“There are sites all throughout central and northern New Hampshire where the amount of available parking just can’t hold the number of visitors that want to enjoy the area,” Boynton said, noting that volume of cars in Franconia Notch will be a specific topic of conversation.

“From the state’s perspective,” he added, “we want visitors. We want people to enjoy it. We’re not initiating anything. We’re just starting to say, ‘Woah.’ ”

Benna, the forest service spokeswoman, noted that the crowding in Franconia Notch isn’t just on the ground, but up on the ridgeline trail as well, where careless hikers trample sensitive plant life.

“We’ve been looking at that with our partners, not only state parks but New Hampshire DOT,” she said. “It’s a small working group that has been doing a lot of thoughtful inquiry and gathering of data to see what is the impact up there on the ridge, and how do the cars and the parking situation contribute to it.”

There’s no “magic bullet solution” yet in sight, she said, but they’re considering especially how alternate forms of transportation, such as buses, might help.

“All of those options are on the table as we think about the future,” Benna said. “We have to look hard at Franconia.”

(Nick Reid can be reached at 369-3325, or on Twitter at @NickBReid.)

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