BAR HARBOR — Residents and business owners debating the merits of parking meters and parking garages here are not alone. Other Maine towns have been struggling with similar questions.
In the town of York in southern Maine, the Board of Selectmen moved last year to increase parking meter fees and parking fines but rescinded the change in June after a community outcry.
Nearby in Biddeford, the town commissioned a parking study by Rich and Associates, which recommended installing street meters and building a parking garage, perhaps through a public-private partnership. Two years later, voters there rejected a referendum question about installing parking meters in the downtown area.
Both of these towns are bigger than Bar Harbor. York’s population was 12,529 in the 2010 census, and Biddeford stood at 21,277. But some of the parking politics have been strikingly similar.
In March of this year, consultants Bermello & Ajamil and Desman Associates presented final recommendations from a multiyear parking study for Bar Harbor and hotel company Ocean Properties Ltd. The recommendations include a public-private partnership for a parking garage in what’s known as the Backyard Parking Lot, behind the West Street Hotel.
Zoning changes to add parking lots and garages in downtown districts, which officials say were inadvertently removed when zoning was amended in 2010, have been in the works for a year now (see related story).
The Town Council created a Parking Solutions Task Force to make recommendations for the first phases of the parking program, which were approved by councilors earlier this month. If a bond issue to buy the meters passes at town meeting in June, the program will go into effect in May of 2018.
In York, the problem was old-fashioned meters that take only quarters, Town Manager Stephen Burns said.
“We have had parking meters in the Short Sands Beach and Long Sands Beach areas since the 1950s or ‘60s,” he said.
When fees increased from $1 to $2 an hour, business owners began hearing from disgruntled customers who were used to the meters, he said, but surprised by the increase.
“There weren’t enough quarters in the world for people to keep up. So the selectmen backed off.” They voted June 29 to reduce the fees back to $1.
“They knew it wasn’t working right, and they changed it,” Burns said.
The town likely will increase the parking fee again, he said, after the installation of new Hectronic-brand kiosks that will eliminate the need for quarters. People pay for specific spots at the kiosk.
“People can pay from a cell phone or go to any kiosk in town. There really shouldn’t be any reason for people to get parking tickets anymore.”
The burden of billing with the new kiosks will fall on the town’s finance department, he said, rather than the public works employees who used to make the rounds to collect quarters.
“It’s a huge amount of physical work.”
He noted that the new kiosks will be large and require a lot of space on the sidewalk. That was a reason cited by Bar Harbor’s task force for their decision not to recommend them for on-street parking.
The fine for a parking violation also was doubled from $25 to $50 and then reduced again in the June board vote.
Burns said the town collects about two-thirds of outstanding fines. “I think it doubles if you don’t pay within 10 days. And now with this new system, we can track how many unpaid violations there are for a vehicle. The next step will be discussing getting a boot. But a $50 parking fine isn’t very good for tourism.”
A move from free to paid parking would be as big a change for Biddeford as for Bar Harbor.
Some planned development projects in that city’s mill district will require additional parking before they can move forward, according to a recent report in the Portland Press Herald.
Meanwhile, residents have expressed concerns about the cost of building and operating a parking garage. “The majority of residents do not want it on the mill rate,” Mayor Alan Casavant said, “but there’s no such thing as free parking anyway.”
The city released a report in May, “Biddeford Public Parking: An Analysis of the Real Costs of Free Parking and Implications on Downtown Design.”
Biddeford has put out a request for proposals for a parking garage, but the city can’t install parking meters to help fund it unless the 2014 referendum vote is reversed, Casavant said. He also said a revenue bond, rather than general obligation bonds, could be used.
The referendum question “Shall the City of Biddeford install parking meters in the greater downtown Biddeford area?” failed by a vote of 959 to 6,761.
“The referendum was designed to sabotage any garage,” Casavant said. The referendum question didn’t define “downtown” and did not mention paid parking lots.
“I don’t think the city did a very good job educating the public about the issue,” he said. “I started talking about a garage five years ago. I used to be a teacher, so I know one of the things you always have to do is repeat yourself.”
Casavant said the many moving pieces in building a parking garage include choosing the right location. “We’ll try to site it where it benefits the most people,” he said. “There’s no one site that fits everything. We’re also very conscious of design: whatever we do has to fit in and be adaptable to future changes.
“The first [parking garage in a community] is always the most difficult,” he continued, “but when residents begin to see them as infrastructure, you’re all set.”