A proposal to charge fees at Fort Williams Park was widely panned by Cape Elizabeth residents who attended a Town Council workshop Monday.

Residents instead suggested the town employ other creative ways to raise funds for the park while keeping it free to all visitors. The ideas for raising money ranged from having the town sell ice cream and lobster rolls at the park, to turning one of the old bunkers into a memorial where the ashes of people who have been cremated could be interred.

Several residents also told the Town Council that the officials should not decide the parking fee issue themselves but instead send the issue to voters. A number of residents also expressed anger that a fee proposal is being brought forward again after residents soundly defeated a similar plan at the polls in 2006.

“If people voted no fees, I think you should honor it,” Herb Dennison, a Spurwink Avenue resident, told the council.

About 40 people attended the workshop, and more than 20 spoke.

Many expressed their affection for the lovely park with its stunning views of Casco Bay. As the home of historic Portland Head Light, which marks the head of Portland Harbor, it draws visitors from around the world.

No one knows for sure how many people visit the town-owned park annually because no fee is charged and no one keeps count. But based on a recent traffic survey at the park, the Fort Williams Advisory Commission estimates as many as a quarter million people come to the park each year.

At the end of approximately two hours of comments and questions about the parking fee issue on Monday, council Chairwoman Anne Swift-Kayatta thanked residents for their feedback.

“I think we got a lot of good input from everyone,” she said. “We’ll work further and see where this takes us.”

The council is slated to discuss the fee proposal at a second workshop, set for Jan. 25 at 7:30 p.m. at Town Hall. The council is not expected to take public comment at that workshop because that was the purpose of Monday’s workshop.

At the start of the workshop on Monday, Swift-Kayatta announced that the council hoped to vote on the fee proposal at its Feb. 8 meeting.

However, after residents urged them to move slowly on the issue and send it out to voters, councilors said they might not vote so soon and would consider the possibility of sending the issue to referendum.

In a townwide vote in November 2006, residents voted 62 percent to 38 percent against a proposal for a pay/display parking fee at the park. The vote was 3,145 to 1,951.

Under that plan, Cape Elizabeth residents could have parked free of charge. Other visitors in cars would have paid $5 a day or $25 for a seasonal pass. Buses and trolleys would have been charged $20 a day or $100 for a seasonal pass.

Now a new fee idea is on the table.

The proposed fees include a $10 annual parking pass for residents and $20 annual passes for visitors in passenger cars or small vehicles who don’t live in Cape Elizabeth. Vehicles without passes would pay to park at meters in parking lots at the park.

Buses, depending on such factors as whether they’re associated with a cruise ship visit, would be charged daily fees ranging from $30 to $50. Trolleys and shuttle buses that visit the park on a regular basis would pay an annual fee of $1,000. Buses for educational groups would not be charged.

The Fort Williams Advisory Commission proposed the fees. The group says the situation has changed since 2006 because the Town Council last March charged the commission with coming up with a way to have the park operate self-sufficiently, without depending on town tax dollars.

The commission decided parking fees were preferable to entrance fees because they’d be easier to implement and would allow for traditional uses of the park to continue.

The park’s operating budget for the current fiscal year is just over $173,000 and covers such expenses as utilities, park personnel salaries and maintenance. The park’s operating expenses are now paid by local tax dollars, according to a commission report.

The park also has a capital budget, which is supported by revenues generated in such ways as donations, the rental of picnic shelters and through coin-operated binoculars. Transfers from the Portland Head Light budget also have supported some larger projects, such as the southerly extension of a cliff walk trail in the park.

Maureen McCarthy and Bill Nickerson, members of the park’s advisory commission, said at Monday’s meeting that the lighthouse budget is legally separate from the park’s budget. They said money raised through the lighthouse’s gift shop and from other means can’t be used at the park unless they enhance the experience of visiting the lighthouse.

The total annual cost for Fort Williams Park, including yearly capital improvements and other costs, such as plowing and police protection during events, is estimated at $346,544.

The new pay/display parking fee system would cost an estimated $45,000 per year. That would bring park costs to $391,544 annually.

However, the commission estimates that within three years, the revenues from the new parking fees would generate enough to cover the park’s annual costs and also result in a net gain of more than $224,000.

Yet most residents at the meeting voiced opposition to the plan.

Jack Sears, a Waterhouse Court resident, said bringing a fee proposal forward again is “a slap in the face” to voters who rejected the plan previously.

Also, he noted that Cape Elizabeth purchased the park in the 1960s for $200,000. “I think that we’ve got a public trust. We got it for a song and I think we should take care of it and fund it,” Sears said. “This is something I’m proud of and I wouldn’t be nearly as proud if we’re charging people.”

A group of residents at the meeting applauded after Sears spoke.

Two speakers representing bus tour companies said cruise ships may not send their passengers to Fort Williams if a fee is imposed. Councilors said they worry about losing tour bus traffic because bus passengers do a lot of shopping at the Portland Head Light gift shop, generating money for the lighthouse budget.

Frank Strout of Shore Road said he’s torn about the issue.

“The last time this was brought up, I was strongly opposed to fees,” Strout said. “But times are different now.”

He said he remains undecided on the question of fees but said that budget concerns “are making us look in a different way at all the services in town.”

Cape Elizabeth, like other Maine communities, is struggling to balance its budget in the economic recession. It has seen cuts in state aid this year because of a huge state budget shortfall and town revenues from sources like the excise tax are decreasing.

George Morse, of Shore Road, said he favored the fee proposal because of the money it would generate. “The numbers make a difference to me,” he said. He noted town residents who live near the park could continue to simply walk in to the park for no charge.

Town Councilor Sara Lennon challenged residents who opposed the idea to come up with other ways to fund the park.

She and other councilors said they’re told by residents not to raise taxes so they need to explore other revenue sources. “If you’re really opposed to park fees, do you have any brainstorm ideas of how we can raise money?” she said.

Fred Prince, of Rocky Hill Road, suggested an old battery at the park be used to house cremated remains. He said a wall around the battery could become a memorial wall similar to the Vietnam Memorial in Washington, D.C.

Charging fees that could range from $4,000 to $5,000, the town could raise $38 million, Prince estimated. He said his idea would generate “real money” instead of the “chump change” parking fees would realize.

Other ideas included selling food at the park.

Carl Dittrich of Ocean House Road suggested the park sell a “Headlight hot dog” in a spot in the park set aside for selling food. “The park is huge,” he said. “It could be off in a separate area.”

Dittrich also suggested the annual world-renowned Beach to Beacon road race fee be raised from $35 to $50, with the extra $50,000 to $60,000 going to the park.

He said voters defeated the fee idea previously so the town should consider other alternatives than charging for using the park.

“It’s our gift to the world, and that’s that,” he said.

Most of the Cape Elizabeth residents at a Town Council workshop Monday spoke out against a proposal to charge fees at Fort Williams Park. Instead, they suggested other ideas for making the park financially self-sufficient, such as opening a food stand at the park. (File photo)

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