2018-10-05 / Front Page

Fort Williams parking fees feted

By Duke Harrington
Staff Writer

CAPE ELIZABETH — Following a second council workshop on the topic Tuesday, Oct. 2, it has become clear that a majority of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council supports implementing parking fees at Fort Williams Park.

But there are two caveats.

One is that parking permits, once targeted for potential use as early as this fall, now won’t be required until next season, starting on Memorial Day weekend 2019, at the earliest.

Second is that the council will not get a chance to conduct a formal vote on requiring those permits until after the Nov. 6 election. At least two, and maybe three seats on the council will turn over at that time, meaning the mood on the council today is not necessarily a reflection of where it will be once it comes time to raise hands on the topic of installing parking meters at Fort Williams.

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 after that, councilors balked, citing the public votes.

At the Oct. 2 workshop, Councilor Caitlin Jordan spoke first, once again raising the specter of those decade old votes.

“A big principle I am struggling with is that we have had two referendum votes on this and both times it was voted down,” she said. “So, I am principally troubled that we are just going to go ahead and do it anyway, and not put it back out to vote again.

“As a plan, I think it’s great,” Jordan said, referring to a four-page report submitted Aug. 13 by the town’s seven-member Fort Williams Park Committee on how best to implement parking fees. “But on a principle basis, I can’t get over that.”

When the park committee accepted its charge from the council June 27, at least two members said they opposed charging the public – apart from tour buses – any fee to access or park at Fort Williams. However, the council did not ask for a recommendation. It only wanted to know how best to implement parking fees, should it choose to do so.

What the committee came back with was a suggestion to install parking kiosks that would kick out parking permit stickers at a cost of $2 per hour. The plan calls for a $4 minimum fee, adjusting on a sliding scale up to $10 for a full-day stay of 10 hours. The kiosks would be placed in five lots, accounting for 270 of the park’s 595 parking spaces. Some spots would remain reserved for special events, but 144 spaces near the Children’s Garden, in the lot located furthest from Portland Head Light, would remain free.

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

Based on 2017 traffic counts and observations from park rangers in 2018, the Fort Williams committee estimated that nearly 277,000 passenger cars enter the site between May and October each year. About 60 percent of those cars had 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.”

The company hired to install the kiosks would get 30 percent of the fees, plus up to $120,000 per year to manage the machines. The vendor or other contractor would also get $35 per hour to pay a parking cop, although the plan predicts that rate would be covered by revenue from tickets issued to those who ignore the new permit requirement, assuming a 50 percent pay rate on up to 30 $20 citations issued per day.

The town’s take from the new parking fees would go toward ongoing maintenance costs to run Fort Williams.

According to former town councilor Jim Walsh, who is now chairman of the park committee, Cape Elizabeth has spent $4 million into Fort Williams 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 has said.

The gift shop at Portland Head Light made $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.

Council Chairman Jessica Sullivan said the town spends about $257,000 per year above any net revenues just to maintain Fort Williams Park. That, she has said, creates a burden on local homeowners, given that a relative dearth of industry in Cape Elizabeth means 82.7 percent of the town’s annual budget is covered by residential property owners. Taxpayers saw a 6.6 percent property tax increase this year, helping to drive a tide of public opinion toward finally treating Fort Williams as an income opportunity.

At Tuesday’s workshop, outgoing Councilor Sara Lennon was the most vocal in support of accessing parking fees. Apart from the need for revenue, she said, the park has become increasingly popular in recent years, partly as a result of site improvements made by the town.

“It’s way too crowded,” she said. “In a way, the park is being ripped away from the very people who are paying for it. I think we should charge as much as the market will bear and then some, so people will think twice.

“If we are going to take this step that is going to be unpopular, no doubt, I am personally not interested in taking that step if it’s small,” Lennon said. “If we are going to have our park overrun, can we at least make some serious profit on it?”

While most on the council seemed to support Lennon’s position, some said the town still needs to decide exactly why it needs to charge parking fees.

“I think we have not decided what the objective is,” said Councilor Penny Jordan. “Is it to defray the costs of the park to the citizens of Cape Elizabeth, or to reduce the usage of the park by others? Which is the objective we are trying to meet, and based on that, what are the actions we are going to take?”

Unlike Caitlin Jordan, Penny Jordan said she did not think the council needs to put the new parking fee proposal out to voters.

“With the amount of traffic and the number of people now going through that park, I think that we really need to be cognizant that we have something that needs to be managed,” she said. “It is no longer a community park. It’s no longer a park that’s about Cape, or South Portland, or even Scarborough. It’s a park that is now national and, to some point, could even be said to be international.”

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