SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Selectmen agreed Tuesday that discussions of what to do about a downtown parking lot are “dead in the water” until a comprehensive traffic and parking study can be done for the town.
Until the end of June, the town and lot owner Ken Korona had a lease agreement for public use of the Clark Point Road parking lot between the post office and hardware store. The town agreed to pay $1 per year in exchange for maintenance and in lieu of taxes on the lot. Those terms were set by former lot owner Edmund Gillespie who established the lease in 1986.
In July, selectmen declined an offer from Korona to lease the parking lot for $18,000 a year while continuing to maintain the property. Town officials estimate yearly maintenance on the lot to be $12,000.
“I thought it was a moot point after that,” selectman George Jellison said. “And now it’s back on the table.”
Korona recently has been putting notices on vehicles parked in the lot informing them it is privately owned and they may be subject to towing.
“The town has decided not to continue providing this service,” the notice states. Also included in the notice is the Town Manager’s phone number to call with concerns.
Following discussions about traffic flow, the number of parking spaces, congestion and the dangers of large vehicles maneuvering through downtown, the selectmen asked Town Manager Justin VanDongen and staff to undertake a parking and traffic study and present results at the next board meeting.
The goal of the study, VanDongen said, would be to improve traffic flow and parking in order to support economic development of the town.
“My understanding is that we were going to look at our parking as a whole,” selectman Lydia Goetze said. “I would think this would be one piece of it… I’m sick of kicking this can down the road over and over again.”
Selectman Ryan Donahue expressed an interest in understanding the real value of the parking lot.
“Townspeople I’ve spoken to say nobody wants to pay his price,” said Donahue. “To me, I’d like to know [the] real value of that lot. I’d hate for us to miss it as an opportunity.”
In 2005, Korona purchased the building that houses the post office and the adjacent parking lot for $950,000. The town assesses the property for tax purposes at $440,000.
In December 1986, Gillespie, who owned the property at the time, entered into a 20-year lease agreement with the town of Southwest Harbor regarding the land on Clark Point Rd.
Gillespie agreed to “construct, among other things, a parking lot which will accommodate at least 46 automobiles.” Earlier in 1986, at the annual town meeting, voters approved giving Gillespie $50,000 to build the parking lot.
“The Town, in addition to providing the above, shall pay as lease rental the sum of One Dollar ($1.00) a year plus the exact amount of any taxes assessed against the parking area which is the subject of this lease,” the document read.
That lease stood for 20 years and was renewed for 10 more years in 2006; a year after Korona purchased it.
In 2017, when the lease expired, the town did not move to immediately extend or amend it and Korona staged a protest by closing it down for a night.
In response, town officials and Korona agreed to extend the lease, as written, for one more year. When it expired this year, there was no extension. Korona offered to have the town purchase the lot or continue leasing it at approximately $30,000 per year.
It is unclear what price Korona offered the town this time. Offers in the past have been as high as $800,000 and more recently closer to $500,000.
In July, Korona placed five large boulders in parking spaces behind McEachern and Hutchins, Inc. the hardware store located on Main Street that abuts the lot. Les McEachern, who owns the store, says, “I’ve heard the town doesn’t need this lot,” he told selectmen. “I can’t for the life of me wrap my head around that. Why don’t we think we need that parking lot in town for the town to be successful? He can destroy the downtown area.”
The town has already invested significant sums in the property. If maintenance of the lot cost the town $10,000 per year for the last 12 years, that comes to $120,000. For the 20 years from 1986 to 2006, if the town spent $8,000 per year, that’s another $160,000.
Public Works Director Scott Alley has said the lot will need to be hot-topped within the next couple of years at an estimated price of $150,000.
That cost, plus the $280,000 already invested, nearly matches the current appraised value of the property.
“We really do need to create a parking plan,” selectman Kristin Hutchins said. “Let’s settle the question.”
Donahue said he wasn’t sure a plan would alleviate the issue.
“You’re saying this should be the first thing we should do in this parking study,” Goetze said to Donahue.
In addition to the post office parking lot, an issue with large tour buses coming into town was discussed. Earlier this week, a 45-foot passenger bus attempted to turn around in the Town Office parking lot. In the process the bus caused damage to pavement and a stone wall.
“This is a problem,” Police Chief Alan Brown said to the board. “That bus that caused the damage is way too big to use that lot.”
Brown and VanDongen stated they had both had conversations with passenger bus companies within the last week.
“I think that the number of tour buses entering Southwest Harbor is just going to grow,” said VanDongen. “If we can find a way to accommodate them without interrupting traffic flow, that’s the best option.”
VanDongen suggested creating a Traffic and Parking Committee to create a comprehensive plan regarding these subjects. He offered to do much of the legwork with help from the town’s staff in order to keep the process efficient and focused.
“I think we’ll see we have more options than we think we do,” said Hutchins said.