By Ellen Dohmen
Parking! Do I hear a rousing chorus of “Not that again!” in the background?
My husband and I have lived here year-round for almost 20 years, and the parking problem was front and center when we moved here, and it’s front and center now. Suggesting it is only a problem in the summer months is really to continue to put our heads in the sand and, to mix a metaphor, kick the can down the road.
Basically, we are a small town with a large number of visitors. The number of visitors and cars coming to Bar Harbor far exceeds the town’s capacity to deal with the road conditions this creates. We really cannot pretend this is not so, and the congestion, the pollution from cars driving around in circles looking for parking places and the frustration and aggravation we all experience are very real.
The town meeting warrant articles before us have absolutely nothing to doing with building anything. Let me be very clear, we are not being asked to vote on a parking garage. We are only being asked to vote on land use zoning ordinance (LUZO) changes that would, if we decide we want one, allow zones where parking structures could be built – repeat – could be built; not are going to be built.
From a planning perspective, where does it make sense to put parking structures? They don’t belong in places far outside a town where no one will be willing to leave a car and walk, especially if they have packages to carry or an ice cream cone or if it’s raining. A parking structure belongs in a convenient place in the center of a town, where people will get rid of their cars and walk around.
In light of the argument that a parking structure might give our small town a big-city “urban” quality, I would suggest that traffic jams are much more “urban” than any structure could ever be. I have been in a line waiting to turn at the corner of Main and Mount Desert streets that is not all that different from trying to go from the west side of New York City to the east side on 43rd Street!
When people come to Bar Harbor to eat, to shop, to browse along our streets, the last thing they want is to spend significant amounts of time trying to get rid of their cars. And people are angry, both those of us who live here all year and those who come to visit.
I’m a walker, and I hear people on the street or in cars with open windows giving voice to their frustrations. And this assuredly is not how it should be when the sun is out, the weather is fabulous, and we are all in one of the world’s most fabulous places.
In 2002, my husband was a member of a committee created by the Town Council called the Alternative Revenue Task Force. The purpose of this committee was to look for sources of revenue which would enable the town to reduce the property tax rates. Because one area identified by that group was revenue from paid parking, the council then formed the Transportation Task Force; again my husband was a member. The task force surveyed other Maine towns that already had implemented paid parking; for example, Ogunquit reported earning slightly over $1 million back in 2001 from parking fees. The recommendations proposed by the task force, which included the possibility of constructing a four-level parking garage on the Backyard Lot, did not result in any action by the town – perhaps the report was ahead of its time.
It is obvious that a parking structure, no matter what kind is built, is not a thing of great beauty. Therefore, in planning to build a structure, should the town decide at some point in the future – and I would suggest it be sooner rather than later – to build one, it needs to be located in a convenient but not visible place. The Backyard Parking Lot is just such a place. It is tucked behind buildings, not on a main street, and not in the viewshed of any of our great views of mountains or water.
Parking structures also are a source of revenue. With all the new technology available to place central kiosks where either cash or credit cards can be used and an amount of time needed to park can be chosen, a town can reap a good deal of money even after deducting the costs of maintenance and bond repayments.
We can’t once again just take no action. We need to move forward on this. Right now, we’re only being asked to vote on possibilities, not structures. To close the door now on what we may want to do in the future is foolish and hampers us from having possibilities available to us as we move along in the 21st century. Let us hope we are not so rigid nor so afraid of change that we close ourselves off from choices we may want to make now or at some point in the future.
Community activist Ellen L. Dohmen is a former member of the Planning Board in Bar Harbor.