Unclean bathrooms, uncollected trash, inadequate staffing and traffic jams.
Those are visitors’ most common complaints about Long Island’s 32 state parks, which draw millions of visitors every year with oceanfront beaches, lush gardens, scenic trails and other amenities.
About 350 people took the time to express their criticisms to park and elected officials in emails and letters between 2011 and 2016, records show.
Few minced words.
The bathrooms at Robert Moses State Park are a “disaster,” a woman wrote last August. “There is a lot of money coming through these doors and I don’t understand why these bathroom facilities are in such disrepair.”
Last summer, a parkgoer, citing decades of visits, fumed: “I do know that my girlfriend and I will never go to Jones Beach again in this lifetime.” The pool was so overcrowded, the man said, it was hard to swim, walk or even sit down — especially because “young men were running around and fighting.”
Jones Beach and Robert Moses, which together lure more than 10 million visitors annually, also drew the majority of complaints. But the correspondence — released at Newsday’s request with names redacted — also shows that state officials responded swiftly in most instances, often offering apologies, explanations and promised improvements.
George Gorman, Long Island deputy director of state parks, who answered almost all of the complaints, applauded the critics for serving as quality monitors.
In some instances, Gorman offered visitors appalled by aging “Third World” bathrooms welcome news of planned improvements. For example, restrooms were renovated at Robert Moses and Jones Beach in the past two years, part of Gov. Andrew M. Cuomo’s plan to make $900 million in state park investments by 2020.
“In most instances, people do complain because of some negative experience that happened in a state park, legitimately, and I’m very sorry that it happened,” Gorman said. “Park visitors are going to the trouble to send us their comments . . . and the final outcome is usually an improvement to a poor service that’s occurring. It’s a good thing that we respond, and we make the parks better.”
To the Jones Beach couple, Gorman pledged to review security measures and add chairs. He said park police later increased patrols.
While Cuomo inherited a $1 billion backlog in capital projects after years of cuts, the complaints reveal the focus on showy upgrades can be marred by faulty maintenance and too few workers.
Noting a planned $1.7 million solar energy system for Robert Moses (which began producing power this summer), an April 2015 visitor wrote: “I might be impressed with that but for the fact that as someone who has been going for more than 35 years I don’t think there has ever been an improvement in the shower and bathroom facilities in all that time.”
Also in 2015, a Jones Beach visitor said the boat basin was plagued by overflowing trash, unleashed dogs, unclean bathrooms, illegal clam diggers, a dozen Jetskiers in the no-wake zone and at least 30 cars parked on the grass.
“There is no excuse for these conditions,” Gorman wrote in his response. Vowing to do his best to fix everything, he cautioned: “We have only minimal staffing.”
Visitors to a number of parks also described loud music, drinking and smoking. They reported teens using illicit drugs or evidently having sex. Other complaints depicted turf battles between walkers and bikers, and swimmers, and surfers and boogie boarders with fishermen.
Here are some more excerpts:
BATHROOMS AND LITTER
At Jones Beach’s Field 6, women’s restroom attendants must wear “tall rubber boots to keep their feet dry — in the hot summer!” a visitor wrote in 2015.
The new showers lacked rims on the floor. So workers battled the resulting floods, which spilled into the bathrooms, with squeegees.
“When I first saw that long overdue renovations and restorations were being done throughout the beach, I was pleasantly surprised. Now I’m disheartened to see it poorly done,” the writer said.
Last August, a Robert Moses Field 5 visitor said of the bathrooms: “ . . . The general state of cleanliness was a Third World slum.”
A Labor Day 2016 parkgoer agreed, and noted litter also was a problem. “The sand was kind of grubby, and littered with refuse and cigarette butts.”
Last summer, Sunken Meadow State Park was “filthy,” a visitor complained, with people failing to use bathrooms, dirty diapers discarded in the sand and plastic cooler tops floating in the water.
Gorman wrote back to explain that building Jones Beach showers without rims allowed people in wheelchairs to roll in. The faulty design was fixed — while keeping wheelchair access — ahead of the 2017 summer, he said recently.
Gorman acknowledged that the Robert Moses Field 5 “aging facilities have been challenging to maintain.” New bathrooms, upgraded showers and a concession all opened from Memorial Day to July this year.
Citing recession-era staff cuts, Gorman told the Sunken Meadow visitor: “On busy days, we try to clean the park as quickly as we can, and sometimes the outlying beaches are cleaned last.” The park manager will find solutions, he said.
“There was a time that the beach was patrolled,” a Jones Beach visitor wrote in July 2015, saying young people were drinking vodka with “beer bottles everywhere, including broken shards in the sand.”
The month before, someone else wrote there was “NO garbage pick up all day” at Field 3 and too few lifeguards.
In July 2015, a woman complaining about litter and other unsanitary conditions at Robert Moses wrote: “People pay to get in and there should be staff on hand.”
A number of other visitors wrote to object to a lack of police to control crowds and traffic.
“We did take severe staff reductions during the recession. However, since that time, our staffing levels have remained constant,” Gorman said recently.
A 2015 Robert Moses visitor wrote that even if lunch were appealing, $80 for a family of four was much too expensive.
That July, another Robert Moses parkgoer wrote: “The restaurant was too busy and too crowded . . . Also there was a bad smell and bad service. The French fries had a bad quality.”
“The concession guy is horrible,” another visitor wrote that same month. “All fried food — yuck!”
After the December Jones Beach light show, someone wrote: “I really think the $6 for two marshmallows, a package of two Saltine-sized graham crackers and 3 rectangles from a Hershey bar is a GIANT scam right along with the $4 hot chocolates.”
Gorman’s responses included promising to contact the vendors and other officials, explaining in some areas new providers were on the way.
TRAFFIC, PARKING AND FEES
Gridlock was a common complaint, especially with the Bethpage Air Show at Jones Beach.
“Needless to say, after spending 4 hours waiting in our car and spending $10 toll plus wasted gas we never got into a parking lot and never got to see the show. What a mess. Not very organized . . . Never doing this again,” one person wrote in 2016.
After enduring bumper-to-bumper traffic only to find the lots were already full, a 2015 air show fan wrote, “We were forced to turn around and sit in even more traffic to leave the area.”
The Wantagh Parkway and Caumsett State Park’s entrance also were deemed unsafe by some people. “The entrance is an accident waiting to happen,” a visitor wrote in July 2015.
Redesigning Caumsett’s entrance is part of its master plan, Gorman noted in his response. He also vowed to revisit traffic analyses.
Some visitors called for reopening the East Bathhouse pool at Jones Beach, shut eight years ago by budget cuts — and not only to ease the long lines at the sole pool open.
“This was a wonderful pool, prettier and more spacious than the West Bathhouse,” a 2013 visitor lamented.
The East Bathhouse pool was not as popular as the western one, Gorman wrote, adding officials hoped to “restore or repurpose” such areas.
More deer should be culled at Caumsett, some writers demanded.
A longtime resident of nearby Lloyd Harbor in 2013 wrote: “They have destroyed major specimen shrubs and historic perennial gardens — the number of deer ticks that have bitten family members has tripled — there have been several serious accidents on our roads — including a collision when a deer ran into the side of our car from the darkness as we were traveling home.”
Gorman replied that the agency was “moving forward” with culling, a policy still followed.
Beach restrictions for endangered piping plovers drew complaints, though not nearly as many as demands to remove feral cats from Jones Beach.
A 2014 Jones Beach visitor had perhaps the most unusual gripe — about a man with a python “around his neck,” drawing a crowd.
Gorman said the snake and its owner were swiftly escorted out by park police.