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Manager to ask park committee for fact-finding on parking fees

Town Manager Matthew Sturgis will ask the Fort Williams Park Committee for information and recommendations on how the town might proceed with a pay/display parking system at Fort Williams Park.

The Town Council assigned the task on June 11, 2018 as part of its deliberation on whether the town should charge a fee for parking in the park.

A 2018 goal for the council is to work with the park committee to review the mission, vision and financial sustainability of Fort Williams Park. Councilors have discussed fees for Fort Williams at three workshops this year, and Sturgis said he was looking for direction from the council to move forward.

"The reason we keep going over and over is we don't have concrete facts," said Councilor Sara Lennon, who asked for a "back of an envelope" estimate of how much fees might generate. The town does charge for group and other special uses of the park, and is considering changes to rules and fees charged tour buses and trolleys, but does not charge a general admission or parking fee.

The idea of charging to park at Fort Williams Park has been controversial, with non-binding referendums failing in 2006 and in 2010. Councilors believe that sentiment may have changed, however. Two speakers at the June 11 council meeting supported fees in light of the tax impact of state subsidy reductions for Cape Elizabeth schools, and a third, Fort Williams Park Committee Chair and former councilor Jim Walsh, encouraged the council to approve fees without a referendum. "You're elected to be the stewards of our assets, this is one of the most important assets that we have," Walsh said.

Sturgis said a pay/display system for parking could net roughly $400,000 in the first year, assuming a $2 an hour fee for a minimum of 2 hours. Other variables such as weather and duration of fee-collecting season could alter that estimate. Other communities such as York and Scarborough have fee systems that could serve as models.

Because the park receives federal grants, fees would need to apply to all visitors, including town residents. That fee could be nominal. Councilors may also consider charging out-of-state visitors more than Mainers, or some other form of tiered system, but Sturgis cautioned against it. "Going through the records of the different discussions of this in the past, it had found the opportunity to bog down the discussion when it came to who was going to pay and who wasn't going go pay," he said. For example, suggested exemptions for veterans, or for residents of South Portland for that matter, made discussions more cumbersome, Sturgis said.

Councilors did seem to agree on a parking fee rather than an entrance fee. A gatehouse at the park entrance would likely cause backups on Shore Road - "I would imagine the next conversation is, when do we install a traffic light there?" quipped Councilor Jamie Garvin.

Garvin, like many other councilors, said he was not opposed to fees, but that the council should have answers to many questions before deciding. Among them are more concrete estimates for how much fees would generate, when during the year would they be collected, and how would collection be enforced. "I think this is all moving really really fast," Garvin said, adding that he was not prepared to make a decision based on the estimates at hand. He also said the town should be sure it is extracting the most from existing fees for using Fort Williams Park.