Alf Anderson of the Bar Harbor Chamber of Commerce asks a question during a meeting about a proposed parking garage in the downtown. PHOTO BY LIZ GRAVES

Parking consultants grilled at meeting

BAR HARBOR — Roughly two-thirds of respondents to a community survey said parking in the center of town during the tourist season is a problem, according to results presented at a special town council meeting Thursday, but opinions were split on what to do about it.

A proposed parking garage behind the West Street Hotel, to be jointly owned and operated by the town and by hotel company Ocean Properties Limited (OPL), was the subject of the survey and meeting. The proposal also includes charging for parking in town lots, parking meters on some streets and residential parking permits.

More than 100 residents and business owners were in attendance Thursday, split between council chambers and an overflow space. They expressed concerns about financial risk to the town, parking opportunities for employees and residents, and whether the project would disproportionately benefit OPL’s businesses. Others worried that increasing parking would only increase traffic.

“Are we sure that bringing in more tourists makes this a better place?” resident Stewart Brecher asked.

“The parking crunch is very seasonal,” Trailhead Café owner Matthew Hochman said. “This solution is like trying to kill a spider with a flamethrower.”

An architect's concept for a downtown parking garage in Bar Harbor. FILE PHOTO

An architect’s concept for a downtown parking garage in Bar Harbor.

In November 2015, consultants Bermello, Ajamil and Associates (B&A) held an open house meeting about the plan. One hundred thirty people attended the open house, Tere Garcia of B&A said Thursday, and 55 completed the survey either on hard copies or by email. Most of the respondents were year-round residents between the ages of 55 and 74.

Resident Donna Karlson said the survey reached too few residents to give a good sense of public opinion. “I’m feeling like this issue hasn’t been thoroughly talked about.”

“I agree it was a small group,” Garcia said, “But it wasn’t a selective small group.” The survey was available on the town website and in the town office for several weeks.

Construction of the garage would require a bond issue. The business plan calls for debt service to be paid by user fees.

Resident Arthur Greif said if revenues from the parking system were less than expected, taxpayers could end up on the hook for the difference. He recommended a phased approach, beginning with strictly enforced metered parking lots, and then adding parking meters on some streets if necessary.

Resident Bob Collier expressed support for the plan, but said he was concerned about people illegally parking on narrow side streets.

Ivan Rasmussen, who chairs the Planning Board, said the current stop-and-go traffic in peak season, as people drive around looking for a spot, creates significant air pollution.

At both public meetings and in the survey, many said they want the town to consider other options to address the parking issue, such as satellite parking and shuttling from facilities such as the Acadia Gateway Center in Trenton.

“Demand in the center of town can only be satisfied in the center of town,” Garcia said.

The proposal includes “demand pricing,” she said, a scale in which on-street parking would be the most expensive, followed by parking lots and then the garage. That system could create incentive for people to use satellite facilities in the future, she said, but town officials would do well to wait and see how parking habits shift.

The proposal is the latest development in a series of parking studies and recommendations dating back to 1998. In 2012, councilors appointed a committee to study the issue. It, in turn, recommended engaging B&A. The town and OPL split the $128,000 cost of a multi-year, four-phase study including parking demand research, exploring options for increasing capacity, and preliminary design and a business and financing plan for the proposed garage system.

An additional $20,000 was approved last fall to conduct the open house and survey, and report back to council.

There will be opportunity for public comment at each of the next stages of the project, Town Manager Cornell Knight said, including any necessary ordinance changes.

Liz Graves

Liz Graves

Reporter at Mount Desert Islander
Former Islander reporter and editor Liz Graves grew up in California and came to Maine as a schooner sailor.

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