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Fees at Fort Williams back on the ballot in Cape Elizabeth

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Fees at Fort Williams back on the ballot in Cape Elizabeth

CAPE ELIZABETH — Residents will be asked in a non-binding referendum June 8 if they support parking fees at Fort Williams Park.

The advisory question is "Would you favor the Town establishing a pay/display parking program for Fort Williams Park?"

The question differs from a November 2006 ballot question that asked residents if they would favor a pay/display parking fee for non-residents at Fort Williams Park to help support park maintenance and improvements. Then, residents voted 3,145 to 1,951, or 62 percent to 38 percent, against the fees.

The question resurfaced three years later, after the Town Council charged the Fort Williams Advisory Commission with finding a way to make the park self sustaining. In order to run the park without using tax dollars, the commission decided parking fees would be preferable to entrance fees, reasoning they'd be easier to implement and would allow traditional uses of the park to continue.

"As a commission, we try to do what we are tasked, and yes, we have personal opinions, but generally have a consensus," commission Chairwoman Maureen McCarthy said. "In this case, we did what the council asked of us, and did it with the best interest of the fort in mind."

At a Feb. 8 meeting, the council voted 5-2 to establish a pay/display system for collecting parking fees at the park beginning April 1, 2011, and voted to send it back to referendum.

The fee structure will apply to buses and trailers entering the park, and passenger vehicles parking within the park. The parking fee for passenger vehicles will be $5 per day; Cape residents would be able to purchase annual passes for $10, there would be $20 annual passes for non-residents. Fees will be collected through a "pay/display" sticker system, rather than individually metered spaces.

The estimated 800 tour buses, camp and recreational buses that visit Fort Williams Park each year between April 1 and Nov. 1 will pay a fee to be determined in discussions between Town Manager Michael McGovern and bus tour representatives. McGovern is scheduled to propose the schedule to the council July 15.

Councilors said it was time to review options for park fees again, based on the change in the economic climate.

Councilor Sara Lennon, who voted in favor of implementing fees, said she believes nobody is happy about the prospect, but the park has fallen into disrepair.

"Historic structures are crumbling, the bleachers are unusable, the native vegetation is being choked out by invasive plants," she said. "Those of us in town who believe that stewardship of the park is our collective responsibility hope that the pay/display system will take a step toward raising some revenue to preserve the park's beauty and history with minimal impact on it's peaceful places, breathtaking vistas and rolling lawns."

But Betty Crane, a member of the group Citizens for a Free Fort Williams, said she feels the Fort should remain open and available to everyone who wants to visit without fees. She said Cape Elizabeth is a wealthy community and citizens can afford to support the park.

"If we make people pay, it will change the feel of the park. Everyone should be able to use this gift," she said. "We need to continue to provide the council with ideas and other ways to make money, instead of adding this fee."

According to information provided during a workshop with the fort commission and the Town Council in January, the park's total annual cost for the current fiscal year is estimated at $347,000 and the new pay/display system would cost about $45,000 a year.

The commission estimates that within three years, revenues from the parking fees would generate enough to cover the park's annual costs. But the panel also recommends the pursuit of other means to raise revenue.

Polls are open on June 8 from 7 a.m. to 8 p.m. in the Cape Elizabeth High School gymnasium.

Amy Anderson can be reached at 781-3661 ext. 110 or aanderson@theforecaster.net