Pleasant Point Park in Buxton is closed because of large gatherings held in violation of state-mandated COVID-19 best practices, as well as dangerous activity such as rock throwing at boaters on the Saco River. Jill Brady/Staff Photographer

It’s truly a sign of these troubled times.

“Per order of the Town of Buxton, Pleasant Point Park is currently closed,” read the notices peppering the picturesque, 60-acre tract’s chain-locked entrance on Saturday morning. “No Trespassing. Violators will be prosecuted.”

Welcome to Summer of 2020 and the never-ending collision between the public good and “Don’t tell me what I can and can’t do!”

For those of us who call Buxton home, Pleasant Point Park has long been, as the town website describes it, “a treasure right in our own backyard.”

Situated on the steep banks of the Saco River, it’s a place where generations of kids have swung far out over the water on ropes tied to the trees, plunging into the 50-foot-depths while their friends onshore and folks in boats – myself among them – applaud their daring.

It’s a place to go for a hike, lay out a picnic, or teach your kids or grandkids how to fish – all thanks to the Woodman family, who set it aside for public enjoyment almost a century ago. For a time, the Appalachian Mountain Club oversaw the pristine riverfront, then the state, and now, since 1989, the town of Buxton.

Entrance fee? There isn’t one.

Residency requirement? None. It’s always been open to all.

Too good to be true? Apparently.

The park is closed and will remain so until further notice for one distressing reason: Over the past couple of weekends, it’s been overrun by mostly young people, many of them from out of state, who see it as a place to get drunk, leave behind a debris field of empties and other trash, even lob rocks at passing boaters on the river.

And if the town’s understaffed police force tries to do anything about it?

“It’s getting to the point where it’s very dangerous for these officers to try to do any type of enforcement action,” Police Chief Troy Kline said in an interview on Friday.

“It’s an attitude issue,” agreed Chad Poitras, chairman of the local board of selectman. “The attitude is horrid.”

To be sure, an undercurrent of danger has always run through the place. Last summer, a 17-year-old boy fell awkwardly from a rope swing into the river and never resurfaced. Divers later found his body downstream. Eleven years ago, a 12-year-old boy was critically injured by a passing pickup truck while preparing to jump into the river from the nearby bridge on Route 202.

But this year is different. The danger isn’t so much the environment in and around the park, it’s the people filling the parking lot and surrounding roadsides (despite the no parking signs) and claiming the place as their own.

Part of it undoubtedly stems from the COVID-19 pandemic. After weeks of confinement and separation from friends, what better way to spend a summer afternoon than to grab a few six-packs and, social distancing be damned, head for the river?

Beyond that, though, lies a more troubling trend. It’s an offshoot of the justifiable protests against police racism and brutality in many American cities. A sense among these children of privilege, who can claim no such persecution by law enforcement, that if some cops are bad, then all cops must be bad.

Recently, Chief Kline said, “I had two young officers that started to get surrounded down there when they went down to do a check. Thankfully … they were able to disengage.”

On another occasion, he said, “another officer had somebody cussing him out and about 45 people tried to surround that officer by himself.” Again, the officer had no choice but to back off.

Some would say hire more police. As if it were that easy.

“I’m extremely short-staffed right now, I’m down two open positions and we’re a small department,” Kline said. “So, I have five officers plus myself to cover a town the size of Buxton.”

That’s six police officers patrolling 24/7 throughout a town with 100 miles of roads and some 8,300 residents. And if you think applicants are flocking to fill those two full-time vacancies, think again.

As Selectman Poitras noted, “No one wants to be a police officer right now, obviously. There’s not a lot of people coming into it. The only way you can get police officers is to essentially steal them from other communities. Which isn’t the answer either because then they’ve got problems.”

At a meeting of the selectmen on Wednesday, some suggested hiring a park ranger who could keep an eye on things and notify police via radio should trouble arise. But, as Poitras noted, there’s no money in the town’s already strapped budget to fund such a position.

Besides, he said, “based on the issues police have been running into, you do not want to be (a park ranger) down there with just a radio. It’s that bad. It’s not safe.”

Think he’s exaggerating? Talk to the boaters who were passing the park one recent afternoon when the drunken jackasses on the riverbank spotted a political sign on the boat and began hurling rocks at the vessel and its passengers.

The boat pulled up to the bank and its occupants – “six big dudes,” as Kline described them – got out to confront their assailants.

It didn’t get beyond words, fortunately. And the rock-throwing “very quickly stopped,” Kline said.

What happens next is anyone’s guess. Poitras said the selectmen will meet again this Wednesday and are open to any “constructive suggestions.”

Charge an entrance fee to out-of-town visitors and use the revenue to somehow enhance the park’s safety?

Possibly, although that would mean the end of the neighborly, decades-old “free and open to all” policy.

Recruit volunteers to help the few park trustees who now go in late each day and pick up after the miscreants?

Might help, although it’s no easy task. Last weekend alone, the caretakers collected 336 empty beer cans, 92 soda cans, 21 liquor bottles, 15 rubber floats and filled more than a few large plastic bags with other trash.

You can almost hear the departing partiers, their bellies as full of illegally consumed booze as their heads are full of themselves, saying, “Don’t worry about it. Someone else will take care of the mess.”

In their world of privilege and free passes, someone else always does.

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