CAPE ELIZABETH — A group of Fort Williams Park stakeholders will draft a mission statement to help guide the park’s use and policies that among other things could suggest parking fees for visitors and paid permits for local residents.
The general consensus of a meeting on Monday, Feb. 5, between the Town Council and members of the Fort Williams Advisory Committee was that the park, first and foremost, is a town asset.
Advisory committee Chairman Jim Walsh noted that although there is not a fee for visitors, “the fort is not free.”
The park is owned by the town. Therefore, he said, the cost to maintain and support it falls on the shoulders of the taxpayers.
Walsh said that between 750,000 and 1 million people visit the park each year. Since 2005, taxpayers have contributed an average of $257,000 per year to support park operations.
“That number fluctuates each year,” Town Manager Matthew Sturgis said, “depending on what capital projects we have in our budget.”
Fiscal year 2018 was particularly costly for the park, where $449,000 was spent for projects such as improvements to the picnic area, parking lots and basketball courts.
With guidance from a mission statement, the council will consider policies around parking fees and commercial tour bus access as a way to bring in revenue.
A week-long traffic study done last year by Vanasse Hangen Brustlin, a South Portland engineer consulting firm, found that just under 13,000 vehicles entered the park from Sept. 23-Sept. 29.
The town sent the question of implementing parking fees to a referendum vote in both 2006 and 2010, both of which failed.
Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan said she would be in favor of “pay-and-display” parking meters throughout the park. Whether or not Cape Elizabeth, or even Maine, residents would be exempt from the fee is up for discussion.
“I think user fees are reasonable,” Sullivan said. “I am sensitive to those people who feel Cape Elizabeth residents should not have to pay.”
However, Sturgis said because of stipulations in state and federal grants received over the years, the council would need to work out some way to charge residents if they do decide to require an entrance fee for non-residents.
“One way to do that may be an annual pass for town residents for a small fee,” Sturgis said. “That is to be decided, but we’d want to find a very simple way to do that.”
Walsh said he’s been a proponent of parking fees at the park for a long time, noting that the pay-and-display system has been “perfected” and there are different variations for the town to consider.
In one option, typically seen in downtown areas such as Portland’s Old Port, a user can enter a card or cash, select the desired amount of time, and print a ticket to display on their windshield. Some meters require users to enter their license plate number, which Walsh said could provide visitor geographic origin data.
Another consideration for the town will be regulating the number of tour buses and trolleys by increasing fees or working on scheduling. Tour bus companies pay $45-50 per visit, depending on their frequency. Trolleys pay an annual fee of $1,700.
Sturgis said the town typically sees around 900 buses come through the park each year.
“If you don’t start to control the peak times … you would have a gridlock,” Walsh said, noting that Acadia National Park’s bus system, which includes a reservation system for buses, uses a “sophisticated approval process” for buses.
The Commercial Passenger Vehicle Subcommittee, under the Fort Williams Advisory Committee, hopes to begin discussions with tour bus companies and operators on options for moderating the flow of buses throughout the park’s busy months.
The council met with the Fort Williams Advisory Committee in September to discuss the future of the park, during which Sturgis was instructed to explore hiring someone to serve as point person to all those invested in the park, including the Public Works Department, the Fort Williams Park Committee, the Fort Williams Park Foundation, and Portland Headlight.
Last month, Kathy Raftice was named Director of Community Services and Fort Williams Park.
She, Sturgis, and a representative from both the council and committee will work on the draft statement, which Council Chairwoman Jessica Sullivan said she hopes will come before the council for approval by the end of the spring, maybe even as early as March.
“It’s all about sustainability and finding ways to protect the park for now and for the long range,” Sturgis said. “Part of that is determining its capacity, which is growing every year while the park is still only 92 to 93 acres.”
Sullivan noted that in the past few years, as the popularity of the park has increased, she has heard complaints from residents who feel they can’t use the park anymore and would be in favor of a parking fee.
“We’re facing a huge growth in use of the park,” Sullivan said. “It is a tremendous asset, but it is also so fragile.”
Restrictions and increased fees for tour buses and trolleys at Fort Williams Park are among the options being considered in Cape Elizabeth. The park typcially draws about 900 buses a year, according to the town manager.