2018-08-17 / Front Page

Fort pay-to-park plan unveiled

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — A proposal to begin charging visitors to Cape Elizabeth’s signature Fort Williams Park could be rolled into action as soon as this fall.

At its Monday, Aug. 13 meeting, the town council accepted a four-page plan on how best to implement a parking fee structure. That proposal was created by the town’s seven-person Fort Williams Park Committee, acting at the behest of the council.

The recommended cost to park is $2 per hour, with a $4 minimum, adjusting on a sliding scale up to $10 for a full-day stay of 10 hours. Kiosks made to dispense parking permits for display in car windows would be placed in five lots, accounting for 270 of the park’s 595 parking spaces.

Meanwhile, Cape residents would be allowed to purchase season parking passes for $5 per vehicle. Non-residents would be allowed to buy a full-season pass for $15.

The 21 parking spots along “Officer’s Row” would be reserved for companies that lease the former army quarters there, and for season pass holders. The 160 spaces on the picnic shelter lawn would be reserved only for use at special events, such as high school graduations and the annual Beach to Beacon.

The remaining 144 parking spots near the Children’s Garden, located furthest from Portland Head Light, would remain free.

“Providing a no-cost parking option resolves several issues, including reservation holders, overflow to streets, and keeping the park available to anyone of any means,” according to the plan.

Based on 2017 traffic counts and observations from park rangers so far in 2018, the Fort Williams committee estimates that nearly 277,000 passenger cars enter the site between May and October each year. About 60 percent of those care bear license plates from away.

Assuming that 10 percent of the Maine plates belong to Cape residents, and that 5 percent of all other in-state visitors would purchase season passes, the committee says the new parking fees should generate “anywhere from $250,000 to close to $1 million per year.”

Those fees would be split with the company contracted to provide the parking meters on what is expected to be a 70/30 split, with the majority going to the town. The plan also assumes the vendor will charge the town about $200 per month, per meter, for in-season management costs, but predicts that cost would be capped at $120,000 per year.

According to the plan, parking fees at Thompson’s Point in Portland have an 80 percent compliance rate, while other municipal lots and garages enjoy a 98 percent rate. Without citing a source, the plan claims parking tickets are paid about 50 percent of the time. Assuming 30 $20 citations are issued each day at Fort Williams to those who ignore the new meters, the town could expect to take in $300 per day in fines, the plan predicts, claiming that would be enough to pay a contractor $35 per hour to handle enforcement.

There may be other hidden costs, however. The committee points out that once people have to pay to park at Fort Williams, their expectations are likely to rise.

“There could be an issue around increased expectations of services – rest rooms, trash cans, etc.,” according to the plan.

But there are other revenue enhancements in the works. Sturgis says a proposal to hike the $50-per-visit fee for tour buses and $1,700 annual fee for trolley buses is expected to be on the town council’s Sept. 10 meeting agenda.

When the committee accepted the council charge to formulate a parking plan at its June 27 meeting, two members openly opposed parking fees. At least two others also expressed some level of doubt at that time. Still, the committee dutifully did as asked, passing along its best advice for how the town might charge people to park at Fort Williams without weighing in on whether it should.

“This was a request for research, not an opinion,” council Chairman Jessica Sullivan told the audience at Monday’s meeting.

There was no discussion of the proposal, however, as the council quickly remanded it to a Sept. 17 workshop.

Unless the council adds a special meeting, a vote to implement the concept, folding in any edits made at the workshop, would not come until Oct. 10, at the soonest.

Still, according to the plan, once a vendor is selected to install and manage parking meters, that company could have the system up and running in “as little as two weeks.”

Twice before, at non-binding referendums in 2006 and 2010, Cape Elizabeth voters rejected proposals to charge for access to the 92-acre park. Any time the idea has come up since then, councilors have balked, citing the public votes.

But the tide turned this past February at a joint meeting of the town council and the park committee, when the possibility of parking fees was raised once more. The council then spent two workshop sessions mulling the idea before passing it off to the committee on June 11.

By that time, the council had adopted a $12.4 million municipal budget for the coming fiscal year. In it, Town Manager Matthew Sturgis set aside $50,000 to implement a parking fee system at Fort Williams Park.

According to former town councilor Jim Walsh, who now is chairman of the Fort Williams Park Committee, Cape Elizabeth has sunk $4 million into the site over the past decade, not counting capital improvement projects funded by the nonprofit Fort Williams Foundation.

Last year alone, the town spent $449,000 to upgrade picnic areas, parking lots and basketball courts, in addition to routine maintenance, Walsh said.

“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 in June, when his group set to work on the new parking plan.

The gift shop at Portland Head Light raked in $680,276 for the fiscal year that ended June 30. However, that money is dedicated exclusively to preservation of the lighthouse and keeper’s quarters.

According to Walsh, the town makes about $200,000 per year in other park revenues, including leases to a limited number of food vendors and entry fees assessed to tour buses, both initiatives launched in 2011.

Sullivan added that the town spends about $257,000 per year above any net revenues just to maintain Fort Williams.

“That’s what it costs the Cape Elizabeth taxpayer to keep this park open,” she said in June. “And we don’t have industry and business here – 82.7 percent of our annual town budget is paid by the residential property owners.”

Those residents saw a 6.6 percent property tax increase this year, leading some to demand that councilors not only find a way to break even on park maintenance, but figure out how to generate enough money from the site to mitigate future tax hikes.

“I think a lot of people are seeing this new tax (rate) as the straw that broke the camel’s back,” Ivie Road resident Bob Hansen said at a June 11 council meeting, when the park committee was charged with drafting a parking plan.

At Monday’s council meeting, only one person spoke to the resulting proposal. Planning Board member Victoria Volent deemed it “a very good plan,” but said the fees it envisions are “too low.”

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