Freeport businesses balk at possible parking rule changes

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FREEPORT — Wary of potential legal repercussions, the Town Council on Tuesday delayed action on a zoning amendment that would eventually eliminate grandfathered parking for property owners in the Village District. 

As town zoning is now written, businesses that use shared parking – spaces open to the general public and not restricted to customers or employees of specific non-residential activities – are allowed by the town to have fewer parking spaces based on a percentage discount.

The proposed change would remove references to “discounts” for shared parking and instead calculate requirements by square footage.

The requirement for properties in the VC-1 District would decrease from 5.9 to 3 1/2 spaces per 1,000 square feet of their building for retail and restaurants, and to two spaces per 1,000 square feet for upper and lower spaces, regardless of use. Other allowed uses in VC-1 would be required to have 2 1/2 parking spaces per 1,000 square feet.

During a public hearing on Oct. 2, many people spoke in favor of the reduced parking requirement, but opposed a second amendment that would require all businesses to come into compliance with the new requirement within five years and eliminate grandfathered parking.

Attorney Paul Driscoll, of Norman, Hanson & Detroy, represented John and Susan Saunders, who own the Saunders Building at 148 Main St., home of Gymboree and Bass Shoe Co.

In a letter to the town, the Saunders called the proposal to terminate grandfathered rights a “gross overreach of the town” and said it was “not wise or fair, and is not legal.”

In a memo to the town, Driscoll said that if the council adopts “any changes to its Zoning Ordinance that render the Saunders property unlawfully nonconforming,” they will have “no choice but to go to court to challenge the ordinance.”

Attorney Jim Hopkinson, of Hopkinson & Abbondanza, represents the Fineburg Co., which owns several commercial properties in the Village District, and echoed many of Driscoll’s thoughts. 

He said if the council passed the amendments, his clients would likely build out space to increase their shared parking, rather than lease existing spaces – the opposite of the town’s desired outcome. 

Town Planner Donna Larson said the town first considered changes to parking requirements in the district in 2011. Throughout parking studies, a determination was made that the existing parking in the Village is “adequate” and new parking wasn’t needed.

“There’s a very big desire to encourage shared parking,” Larson said.

Based on “macro-calculations,” Larson said the Planning Board estimated there would be 65 surplus spaces in the Village if everyone came into compliance, which she said allows “for some growth and some change but is not too much to upset the balance.”

A few members of the public spoke in support of both aspects of the change.

Keith McBride, executive director of the Freeport Economic Development Corp., said the proposal would “reduce the barrier for new, small, incoming businesses … (and) for reuse and redevelopment.”

“It also simplifies the requirement for all users in the future,” McBride added.

Still, many business and property owners said eliminating grandfathering would impose an “unfair” and “unexpected” cost increase for their operations should they have to find more spaces.

Jeff Curtis, co-owner of Sherman’s Maine Coast Book Shop, said he was told his parking requirements were grandfathered, and coming into compliance with the new standards would require him to increase his shared parking spaces from 10 to 17.

“I understand the need for fairness, but there’s an unfairness in changing the rules for an existing business model,” Curtis said, calling the “unexpected expense” a “hardship.” He said he leases the space at 128 Main St. and had considered purchasing it, but the council’s action will have an impact on that decision. 

Councilor Lee Arris said if action is taken on the proposed amendments, which were supported by the Planning Board by a 5-2 vote in August, he would support reducing the required shared parking spaces, but not the elimination of grandfathered parking. 

Rather than discuss it further Tuesday night, councilors closed the public hearing and went into executive session to consult the legality of the proposal with the intent to resume discussion during their next meeting on Oct. 17.

Jocelyn Van Saun can be reached at 781-3661, ext. 183 or jvansaun@theforecaster.net. Follow her on Twitter @JocelynVanSaun.

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