SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Eliminating parking spaces on one side of Main Street and limit the remaining spaces to 45 minutes could help create “a more vibrant downtown,” Town Manager Justin VanDongen told a group of residents and business owners gathered for a public hearing at the fire station Tuesday.
“We won’t know for sure if we never do anything,” he said.
The plan also proposes increasing signage to point visitors to public long-term parking options.
“I think we’re failing ourselves by clogging up our streets with cars going back and forth,” said VanDongen in explaining the purpose of the plan. “And, we’re failing the people visiting our community by not having signage that properly instructs them how to get to an area where they can park for the designated amount of time they need to park and utilize the services in downtown in an efficient way.”
Public parking during the summer season was a controversial issue well before VanDongen took the position of town manager last year. At the end of 2018, selectmen asked him to compile information about traffic and parking in town and present a plan to make improvements.
Since the plan was presented to selectmen in August, there has been plenty of discussion among businesses in town. Around that same time, there were two serious accidents downtown involving pedestrians and vehicles that resulted in one fatality and one pedestrian being taken to the hospital with serious injuries.
“The basic idea … is pedestrian safety,” VanDongen said.
The public hearing was organized to allow for questions and solicit feedback on the proposal.
“The Select Board can modify the parking ordinance,” Chair Lydia Goetze explained to the audience. “It doesn’t go before the voters. That’s why we would like to hear what the townspeople think is important.”
One of the most controversial suggestions is the loss of parking spaces on Main Street.
“I understand that it’s stressful to think about losing parking spaces,” VanDongen said to an audience of about 20 people, mainly business owners. “The plan would be, after we remove those spaces, to shift the travel lanes three feet towards those spaces. The purpose of doing that is to increase the line of sight and visibility to cars and also allow for safer bike travel through downtown.”
On a map provided at the hearing three different colors highlighted where spaces would be eliminated, parking spaces where times would change and handi-cap spaces would be located on Main Street and Clark Point Road.
“If we do this are you going to give [Police Chief Alan Brown] enough money to enforce this?” asked Les McEachern, who owns McEachern and Hutchins hardware store, about enforcing the shorter parking time. “Will we allow him the money to hire an officer to control it?”
One business owner asked if there could be specific hours of enforcement.
Another member of the public asked about the Island Explorer bus that stops at the intersection of Main Street and Clark Point Road.
“I’d like to see the Island Explorer stop somewhere else,” said VanDongen. “I think there are better options of where we can have the Island Explorer stop then our busiest intersection.”
Creating a safer environment for visitors and residents riding bicycles is also a benefit of the plan. According to VanDongen, bicycle riding is a focus for many visitors to Mount Desert Island.
“Acadia National Park is renowned for its bike access,” he said at the hearing. “But if you look at any of those [web]sites, they all say, don’t go to Southwest Harbor. We’re kind of tagged as one of the most dangerous areas for bicyclists on those bicycle tour sites.”
Two members of the public spoke in support of the changes. One, a dad who hauls his children through town in a wagon, said a focus on increased safety in downtown was appreciated.
“I think it’s a wonderful idea,” one other woman said about the proposed changes.
One Planning Board member asked if business owners were in support of the changes.
“A good number of them have been receptive,” VanDongen said, though he noted businesses have faced lots of changes recently, especially the town’s recent action to ban single-use plastic bags and Styrofoam.
“I think there are some concerns from business owners. I think they’re at least willing to try.”