SOUTHWEST HARBOR — Tensions are again running high regarding the downtown parking lot near the post office here.
A year-long lease agreement between the town and lot owner Ken Korona is set to expire June 30. Once it does, there is no plan in place for public use of the Clark Point Road lot. The lot has about 40 parking spaces.
“I suspect the Select Board may have underestimated how important that lot is for public parking,” said Kristin Hutchins. She is the owner of Hutchins Cottages in Acadia in the downtown area and an incoming selectman. Her term begins next week.
Discussion regarding the issue was initiated by Selectman Lydia Goetze. There are two reasons no decision has been made on whether to purchase the lot, she said. One is possible petroleum contamination from previous businesses on the lot. The other is the need for a warranty deed to purchase the lot.
“I think we’re being asked to take some leadership,” Goetze told fellow selectmen. “I think the voters deserve a chance to weigh in on this.”
After explaining programs through the Department of Environmental Protection that could help with the first issue, Goetze asked to hear about a petition regarding the lot.
About two weeks ago, Hutchins circulated a petition for residents, business owners and customers in Southwest Harbor asking selectmen to pursue the preservation of the public post office parking lot. She collected 134 signatures.
“We present ourselves as a business friendly community,” said Hutchins. “I think the loss of that parking lot would be dramatic… I think you are making a mistake and it’s short-sighted.”
After listening to nearly an hour of debate, Chair Dan Norwood explained negotiations for a purchase or lease extension on the lot is the town manager’s responsibility. Selectmen then make decisions based on the manager’s recommendation.
“Do the five of you seriously believe it is not critical to have this parking for this town?” Ingrid Wilbur Kachmar asked the board. She is a resident and executive director of Harbor House. “There isn’t one person I’ve talked with who doesn’t think this is an integral part of this town.”
Selectman Chad Terry explained to the crowd that discussions about the lot had been on several Select Board agendas through the winter. No one showed up to discuss the issue at those meetings, he said.
Last year, when a lease on the lot between Korona and the town expired, the lot was closed for public parking for one night.
“I was trying to get people’s attention to sit down and talk about this problem,” Korona told the Islander at the time.
“Tourism is critical,” Hutchins said. “I’d be very sorry to see us lose this parking. We had a taste of it a year ago.”
Incoming Town Manager Justin VanDongen suggested selectmen could consider other areas around town to alleviate the parking issue.
“That lot is full on any given day,” VanDongen said, noting he uses it regularly. “We should focus on if we lose that lot, how is our parking not a nightmare?”
Downtown business owner Jennifer Worcester agreed with VanDongen and suggested the town may need to look at options for seasonal traffic flow as well, similar to Northeast Harbor.
“The way I see it, the town shouldn’t be buying a parking lot” when that lot, privately owned, is already available for parking, Selectman George Jellison said. “It’s a maintenance nightmare, as you know.”
In the year-long lease set to expire in less than a week, the town agreed to maintain the lot. Korona has also been given a tax break on the lot if he agreed to allow public use. Last year, he contributed $501 to the town for taxes, according to outgoing Town Manager Don Lagrange.
Previous negotiations regarding a possible purchase of the lot went as high as $800,000. That price was reduced in more recent discussions, but still not at a price the town wants to pay.
“You’re talking half a million dollars for a parking lot,” Terry said.
“I think it is a complicated thing,” said Selectman Ryan Donahue about putting the future of the lot in the hands of the voters.
“We’re already absorbing the cost.”
Goetze implored the board to come up with some kind of offer to keep the conversation going with Korona regarding public use of the lot.
“He needs to understand when we are going to get out of the chair and start working,” said Goetze. “Not let a year pass without doing anything.”
With a vote of 4-1, Jellison being the single objecting vote, selectmen agreed to present Korona with a one-year lease extension.