Published in the Current
Cape Elizabeth town councilors are encouraging people to paint on “The Rock” on Route 77 during daylight hours, and to be respectful of neighboring residents at all times.
Dennis and Ann Flavin, whose driveway is directly opposite the rock, have complained to the town about nighttime noise, including yelling and squealing tires, as well as littering, harassment and trespassing by people involved in painting the rock. They have threatened to sue the town if something is not done.
The town’s proposed remedy includes having the police ask all people observed painting the rock to “move along,” and informally encouraging students to paint on the rock during the day, and without making noise or leaving litter behind.
Several councilors worried about the public’s response if, for example, police officers arrested people caught painting the rock, which lies in the state right-of-way for Route 77, and is technically overseen by the state Department of Transportation.
There is a town ordinance making it illegal for people to “mark or write on” public places in town. Police Chief Neil Williams said he was reluctant to supervise any legalized painting of the rock, but is concerned about the Flavins’ “peace of mind,” as well as preventing them from being harassed or being unable to sleep at night due to noise.
Williams said there are already laws in place to deal with littering, noise complaints, harassment and trespassing. Each of those, he said, would require police to warn violators before issuing a summons. If a violator refused to comply with the law after a warning, or returned at
some later time or date, Williams said, then a summons could be issued.
Councilor Henry Berry, a former prosecutor, agreed with Williams’s interpretation of the law.
Several councilors, as well as Town Manager Mike McGovern, noted the lack of precedent for taking legal action against people observed painting. “No one has ever been summonsed for painting the rock,” he said.
Councilor Berry asked if the town had jurisdiction over state property within the town limits. Williams said the police do issue summonses on state property, but not for violations of town ordinances.
All of the councilors, except the absent Penny Carson, expressed sympathy for the Flavins’ situation, and said they would not tolerate the behavior the Flavins were complaining about.
“The harassing, the noise, the litter, the trespassing is not condoned,” said Councilor Carol Fritz.
She questioned whether the council should expressly allow painting of this particular rock, and whether that permission would be extended to other rocks in town that are also painted.
Councilor Anne Swift-Kayatta said the Flavins’situation is bad. “No one should have to put up with that sort of disturbing of the peace,” she said. But, she said, she had heard support from town citizens who wanted the painting of the rock to continue, without the noise.
Superintendent Tom Forcella made a plea on behalf of the students.
“Obviously the students really like that tradition,” he said. “The control is the issue.” He said he wanted some sort of compromise to be arranged, “so they can still keep the tradition and still keep the peace.”
Ann Flavin said the rock is a relatively new tradition. “We didn’t have a rock until 1965,” she said, when Route 77 was widened. She said the rock was public, and that the ordinance prohibits graffiti.
“Let kids go up to the Statehouse and graffiti the Statehouse,” she said.
Her husband said he didn’t want to get more people in trouble, but was concerned about the noise.
“There was a few nights I only got two hours’sleep,” he said, proposing an alternative: “Wouldn’t it be more feasible and sensible to move the rock?”
Ann Flavin proposed a wall be constructed near the high school and new community center. “What better place to relocate a wall for (people) to write on?” she asked.
Fritz replied that such a wall could have difficulty meeting the zoning rules for the town center.
The content of the messages painted on the rock was also a subject for discussion.
Town public works employees are called out “a little less than once a year” to paint over obscene or inappropriate messages painted on the rock, McGovern said. The police department does the same about once a year as well, Williams said.
The state DOT has been out “once or twice” in the past five years to paint over messages.
Resident Kevin Sweeney, who is also on the School Board but said he was speaking as a private citizen, contrasted the painting on the rock with his experience of graffiti in New York City. The messages on the rock, he said, were unlike the “tagging” New Yorkers consider graffiti.
Sweeney said some of the people who paint the rock behave in a way that is “clearly repugnant.” But after Sept. 12, when the American flag was painted there, the painters had cleaned up after themselves.
He said the rock has been painted less frequently in recent months, starting with the flag on Sept. 12, the addition of the names of local active-duty members of the armed forces in late December, and a total repainting around Memorial Day.
Sweeney also said the rock creates a place for teen-agers to go. “I think our people need a place to express themselves,” he said.
Anthony Zinani, a recent CEHS graduate, said the rock is not painted with “graffiti,” but is instead a place for small-town accomplishments to be announced to the town and celebrated with the community.
“Is it that bad to paint a memorial to Toni Williams?” he asked. “It’s not graffiti. It’s a memorial. I think it’s part of the Cape Elizabeth community.”
Resident Frank Strout said he has seen the rock painted for 30 years, and even goes out of his way to drive by it, especially when he knows a team has won a big game or championship. “I’d like to see it continue,” he said.
Former high school teacher and coach Don Richards said the tradition is an important one, especially to sports teams. “We’d get back (from a game) at 3 a.m. and they’d be ready to paint the rock,” he said.
“It was their way of saying to the community, ‘Look, we did this,’” he said.
Richards said he thought it could be made more palatable. “I think a lot of kids paint the rock during the night because they don’t know that it would be OK to paint during the day,” he said.
And now, that may be the case.
Dennis Flavin said it would be OK with him if the rock was painted quietly. His wife took a harder line, saying to councilors, “You made up the law against graffiti. I’m offended by the rock. I’m offended by the people that go out there and do it.”
Other Cape residents living near other graffiti-painted rocks sympathized with the Flavins’ situation, and one even said she regularly found used paint cans and paintbrushes near the rock close to her home. Some residents said they had not had any problems with the people who painted the rocks near their houses, while the woman who found the litter effectively agreed with the Flavins.
She suggested the town build a wall near the high school where students could paint notices of their achievements, and said she tried not to look at the rocks as she drove by, because she didn’t like them.
Residents did not want to give their names for fear they would be harassed by kids who enjoy painting the rocks. The Flavins said the noise and harassment have gotten worse since they complained to the town.
Forcella and Sweeney said they would pass the word informally through the school administration and student councils, and encourage students to be respectful of the property and of the Flavins when painting the rock.