LACONIA — Are hot dogs and burgers as important as sunshine when it comes to having a fun day at the beach?
That’s the question which members of the city’s Parks and Recreation Commission are grappling with after hearing comments — pro and con — regarding the rule banning cooking in city parks and beaches.
Although the regulation, enacted last fall, pertains to all parks facilities, it has proved controversial at Weirs Beach where, unlike the three other city beaches, visitors typically outnumber local residents on any given day during the summer.
Critics told the commissioners at their monthly meeting Monday evening that the no-cooking rule is taking away from the beachgoers’ fun and makes the city look less welcoming to visitors, while supporters said the ban has made the beach safer and cleaner.
Stacie DeMatos, who owns Weirs Beach Convenience and Gifts, asked commissioners to reconsider the regulation and urged the Parks and Recreation Department to work to better educate visitors about safety, rather than outlawing cooking altogether. DeMatos said the rule has hurt her business which is located across the Weirs Channel from the beach.
However, resident Karen Kutensky said banning cooking at the beach had become necessary because of recent problems, including charcoal ashes being dumped on the ground. Further, she said critics are blowing the no-cooking regulation out of proportion.
“I do not know any parent who will say, ‘No, we can’t go to Weirs Beach because we can’t cook,’” she said.
However, some said that cooking and beach safety and cleanliness are not incompatible.
“I understand about (smouldering) coals,” said Charlie St. Clair, “but there’s a way to alleviate that.”
Suggestions included installing special receptacles where charcoal ashes could be disposed, installing permanent charcoal grills for people to use, or allowing only propane grills.
State Rep. Michael Bordes, who lives in Weirs Beach, was among those asking the commissioners to revisit the regulations.
“We need to be welcoming,” he said.
Parks officials also received several emails from both local residents as well as out-of-state visitors regarding the regulation.
Carl Wikander emailed to say that one possible solution would be to allow cooking in designated areas only.
But Richard Hanna of Abington, Massachusetts, said the rule was necessary.
Parks and Recreation Commission Chairman Mitch Hamel said the panel was keeping an open mind about the regulations.
“We will try to come to a compromise,” he said after the public-comment period ended.
Parks and Facilities Director Amy Lovisek said the issue would probably be discussed at the commission’s next meeting, set for Aug. 16.
DeMatos told commissioners that she believes the regulations are an outgrowth of anti-Hispanic sentiment, in particular toward Latinos from Lawrence, Lowell, and Methuen in Massachusetts.
St. Clair said he began noticing that some locals were being uncomfortable with such groups showing up in greater numbers at the beach starting back in the 1990s.
Hanna, in his email, singled out Brazilians who, he said, have been showing up in greater numbers for the past 10 years, with some of them being inconsiderate toward other people who want to use the beach.
“”They get there between 6 and 7 a.m. to claim whatever they want. They act as if this is their beach,” he wrote.