CAPE ELIZABETH – Anyone who thinks the advent of food vendors these past two summers has violated the sanctity of Fort Williams Park may want to make time to attend the July 8 meeting of the Cape Elizabeth Town Council.

At that session, a public hearing will be held that promises to pit the town against so-called “street artists” who may want to set up shop inside the park to peddle their wares on the pretext of asserting a right to self-expression. The concern, town officials say, is that they may have a point, and the U.S. Constitution could preclude the town’s ability to simply deny artisans access to the park.

In 2011, the town began to license food trucks to work four marked sites within Fort Williams Park, charging annual permit fees ranging as high as $4,000. The town also called on vendors to carry a $400,000 insurance policy with coverage good for at least $2 million on bodily injury and property damage. Then, in 2012, the town began to charge a $40 gate fee to tour buses and a $1,500 annual fee to so-called trolley services, which shuttle tourist into the park.

However, this year the advent of a lone artist in the park has sent the Town Council scurrying to assert its right to regulate commercial activity within the historic site.

“There’s reason to believe some issues that could crop up,” said Town Manager Michael McGovern at the June 10 council meeting. “There’s been only one of these street vendors so far. But, if we get many more, there could be some huge challenges in dealing with it.”

“The impetus behind this was essentially the specter of more vendors wanting to sell their artwork or their photographs, and the ability of the town to regulate that, given what First Amendment rights they may have to conduct that activity,” said Councilor David Sherman, a member of the council’s ordinance subcommittee.

On May 30, the three-member ordinance committee met with attorney John Wall, of the Portland law firm Monaghan Leahy, to review court decisions relating to the First Amendment rights of street vendors.

The concern, wrote Sherman in a memo to the full council, is how to respect those rights while also “preserving the aesthetic, historic and open space characteristics of the park.”

The unanimous recommendation was to add a single sentence to Chapter 12 of the town’s code of ordinances relating to “miscellaneous offenses” asserting the town’s right to govern commerce in the park, as it has the past two years. The proposal reads, “The town council is hereby authorized to adopt rules and regulations to manage commercial activities in the Park, activities that include, but are not limited to, vending.”

“This could even look at the food vendors,” said McGovern. “If another one showed up, what right do we have to move them along?”

In what Sherman called a “two-tiered approach,” the Town Council would farm out the drafting of any rules regulating artists to the Fort Williams Advisory Commission.

“That seemed to be a job better suited to them,” he said. “They, of course, would refer any recommendations back to the council, which could enact them or not.”

The Advisory Commission was expected to begin deliberations on the topic at its June 20 meeting, and could even have a draft of initial rules ready for a council vote immediately following the July 8 hearing, said McGovern. The hearing will take place at a meeting that begins at 7 p.m. at town hall.

According to McGovern, those rules, at least as envisioned by the ordinance committee, could include where vendors will be allowed, how close to the lighthouse they can be, and what effect they might have on traffic.

With the top of Portland Head Light just visible over the hillside at Fort Williams Park in Cape Elizabeth, hungry park-goers queue up at the Bite Into Maine trailer in 2011, when the town first licensed food trucks on four marked sites in the park. The town is now working on rules governing other kinds of vendors at Fort Williams.

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