2018-06-29 / Front Page

Fort Williams parking price pondered

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

Cars parked near Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth are seen in this July 2017 photo by Russ Lunt of South Portland. The town council has asked the Fort Williams Park Committee to provide an advisory on how the town might best charge for parking at the site, an idea that has twice been rejected by voters at non-binding referendums. Cars parked near Portland Head Light at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth are seen in this July 2017 photo by Russ Lunt of South Portland. The town council has asked the Fort Williams Park Committee to provide an advisory on how the town might best charge for parking at the site, an idea that has twice been rejected by voters at non-binding referendums. CAPE ELIZABETH — At the behest of town councilors, the Fort Williams Park Committee has formed a three-member subcommittee and charged it with determining how best to charge for visitor parking at the historic site.

The full committee will convene at 6 p.m. on Aug. 7 for a single-item agenda, to parse the results and vote on a recommendation to the council. That package is expected to go before the council at its Aug. 13 meeting.

In reviewing the charge for committee members at their June 21 meeting, council chairman Jessica Sullivan was clear about one thing — the council is not asking for an up-or-down recommendation on whether or not to charge for parking.

“What we are looking for is a proposal with various scenarios (of how to charge). Then we would likely go to a council workshop to study it all in detail,” she said.

“(A parking fee) is not a foregone conclusion at this point,” park committee chairman Jim Walsh said. “The council is simply saying, let’s get all of the data, let’s get it in a single report to us, so they can make an informed decision based on the facts.”

In a June 19 memo to the committee, Town Manager Matthew Sturgis asked the committee to compile information such as a hard count on the actual number of parking spaces at Fort Williams, and how many Mainers visit the site each year, versus people from out of state, how much the town might take in from parking fees and what it would cost to implement and maintain a system of automated parking permit kiosks.

Sturgis asked the committee to weigh in on whether parking fees should be required year round or only in the peak tourism months, what the fee structure should look like, and how enforcement action would be handled for those who simply ignore the kiosks, among other questions.

That the council is asking for how best to implement a parking fee, not if, may be a good thing. At the June 21 committee meeting, held at the town community center, two members acknowledged their opposition to entry fees at Fort Williams, including one selected to join the review subcommittee.

“I’ve always been very much against charging any fees to get into Fort Williams,” Kenneth Pierce said, questioning if he should even be on the subcommittee for that reason. “But a pay-to-park structure with (permit) machines is definitely less intrusive. So, I’d definitely keep an open mind.”

“That’s actually good,” Walsh said, of Pierce’s open recalcitrance. “What we are trying to do is study this and be as objective as we can and give the town council something they can get their arms around, because ultimately, at the end of the day, they are going to have to make the decision, and they’re all over the map at the moment in terms of their thinking.

“But the fact that you have a particular bias — we all come to whatever it is with a bias, no question about it,” Walsh said. “You’re entitled to your opinion, just like anybody else.”

Walsh then admitted, “I also have a bias as to what the council should do.”

To wit: “I don’t care what they do, just make a decision. Period,” he said.

Joining Pierce on the parking review subcommittee will be Jim Kerney and Mark Russell. A first working session for the subcommittee had not been set by the time this week’s Sentry went to press July 27. However, Walsh said its meetings will be open to the public and advertised on the town website. The full Fort Williams Park Committee is slated to meet next on July 19, before its special meeting Aug. 7.

Drive for parking fees

Twice before, in 2006 and 2010, voters in Cape Elizabeth soundly defeated proposals to charge for park access, weighing in at non-binding public referendums. But the new drive to charge for parking does not exactly come out of the blue.

“Even after those referendums, this has certainly been bounced around,” Sullivan said.

The only difference is that in the past, the council majority stalled out at deeming the issue a non-starter, citing feedback from the public votes. But the last vote was nearly a decade ago, and times change.

In its most recent iteration, the topic of parking fees first came up a February joint meeting of the town council and the park committee, during talk of crafting a new mission statement and use guide for the park and placing the park under the town’s new director of Community Services, Kathy Raftice. Previously, the park had been overseen by Public Works Director Bob Malley.

The council then spent two workshop sessions mulling park fees — a proposal to hike the $50-per-visit fee for tour buses and $1,700 annual fee for trolley buses will be on the agenda for the council’s July 9 meeting, Sullivan says — before taking of the parking permit idea at a June 11 regular meeting.

At that meeting, Sturgis suggested a $2 per hour permit, requiring a minimum two-hour charge, might raise $400,000 per year. A lease-purchase deal for the wireless parking kiosks might cost as much as $5,000 per station, he said.

In his $12.4 million municipal budget for the coming fiscal year, adopted by the council May 14, Sturgis included $50,000 to implement a parking system at Fort Williams, should the town council vote to do so.

The full budget 2018-2019, including schools and county tax, tops $35 million, and the 6.6 percent hike in the local tax rate that came with that plan has helped to fuel some of the interest in charging for access to Fort Williams, often referred to by locals as one of, if not the crown jewel of Cape Elizabeth.

“We need to optimize our existing revenue sources, and new opportunities,” Ivie Road resident Jerry Kneller told the council at its June 11 meeting.

During two recent trips to the park, Kneller said, he estimated 90 percent of the license plates on cars on site to out-of-state registrations. Assuming 350,000 cars per year at the park, at “$10 a pop” the town might take in $3.5 million per year.

“That’s revenue just sitting on the table,” he said. “It’s the elephant in the room, but it’s time for us to look at this.

“We are one of the most taxed states in the country, and in Maine one of the most taxed municipalities,” said Kneller’s Ivie Road neighbor, Bob Hansen. “I think a lot of people are seeing this new tax (rate) as the straw that broke the camel’s back. I’ve already got to the point that when my kids are done with school, I’m probably going to have to leave the state. I just can’t pay that kind of income tax.”

Hansen also suggests a $10 parking fee.

“I don’t think it’s right to go to us again with a tax increase until you exhaust that obvious option,” he said.

Because the town accepts federal grants for the park, it must charge something to local residents as well as tourists. However, it can create a tiered system, as Kennebunk does for beach parking, assessing different rates based on residency.

But in implementing parking fees, Councilor Jamie Garvin said the town needs to have its ducks in a row, in order to make a solid case for change.

“I’m not prepared to at all move forward with a decision on anything that is slightly more than back-of-the-napkin math,” Garvin said.

Park costs

Meanwhile, even as some residents are demanding a means to mitigate local tax hikes, those at the center of the parking storm say something has to give, just to keep up with basic park maintenance.

According to Walsh, Fort Williams, at 92 acres, saw “just under a million” visitors last year. This compares to around 3.5 million visitors per pear at Acadia National Park, which has a little more than 49,000 acres.

“Acadia has raised its rates to $30 a visit and just announced a plan to manage the traffic in the park,” Walsh said. “We have the exact same issues — we have one way in and one way out, and we’re experiencing the same increased traffic. Basically, what we are trying to do is improve the overall patron experience. And the way you do that is you manage some of the components, because we have safety issues.”

One thing the park has recently done is to ban tour buses from entering the small traffic circle directly in front of the lighthouse and gift shop, where they have historically dropped passengers. Now, to reduce congestions, those buses must discharge tourists, largely coming from cruise ships docked in Portland, at the central parking lot. historically dropped passengers. Now, to reduce congestions, those buses must discharge tourists, largely coming from cruise ships docked in Portland, at the central parking lot.

“Use of the park has exploded in the last five years and we’ve got complaints from residents in the last year or so from residents who say, ‘I can’t use my own park,’” Sullivan said. “So, another issue is the growing in addition to the maintenance and safety issues is the money it takes to just keep our heads above water.”

Over the past decade, Walsh says, Cape Elizabeth has sunk $4 million into the park — and that does not count capital improvement projects funded by the nonprofit Fort Williams Foundation. Last year alone, the town spent $449,000, including upgrades to picnic areas, parking lots, and basketball courts, in addition to routine maintenance.

“That’s why, when you hear cries of, ‘Keep it free,’ you have to remember, it’s never been free, not to the taxpayers and residents of Cape Elizabeth,” Walsh said.

“We average $257,000 a year above any net revenues. That’s what it costs the Cape Elizabeth taxpayer to keep this park open,” Sullivan said. “And we don’t have industry and business here, 82.7 percent of our annual town budget is paid by the residential property owners.

“And keep in mind, also,” Sullivan said, “Fort Williams was built as a military reservation, not as a destination park with a million people and cars and buses. So, we really need to get a handle on this, in order to protect and preserve the site. It’s in keeping with our stewardship mission to look at all revenues for this asset.”

“We bring in about $200,000 per year in revenues at the park,” Walsh said. “But (the committee) just did an annual walk-through, and if we put a price tag to the things we would like to do in the park, we’re talking probably $500,000 to $1 million. We don’t have that kind of cash. But these are all things that should be done.

“The Goddard Mansion, for example,” Walsh said. “It just sits there. What do we do? Do we go to the taxpayer to pay for it? So, we just put a fence around it. It’s a fine balance, but we are doing what we feel we have to do.”

In the end, Walsh and Sullivan agree there will likely be significant pushback on any parking fee scheme.

“There is a significant amount of interest in the community for what’s taking place,” Walsh said. “I have been called every name in the book.

Still, Walsh says this time around, officials should resist the temptation to once again poll the public. It’s the council that needs to make the call, he says.

“They just spent $35 million and nobody asked any questions about that,” he said, “But when it comes to the park we don’t think town council should be allowed to make a decision. I don’t get it.”

 news@inthesentry.com.

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