Biddeford voters are to decide in November whether or not they want parking meters downtown, per a city council vote to move forward with a citizens’ petition on the issue.

The meters, which are proposed as part of a larger downtown parking plan that includes a parking garage, have been controversial from the first time they were mentioned. Many locals say they don’t want to have to pay for what is now free parking when they patronize downtown businesses. Proponents of the plan, meanwhile, say the downtown can’t grow without more parking and note that the meters are a necessary part of the bigger picture.

We continue to support full implementation of the downtown parking plan, and we agree with Mayor Alan Casavant and Economic Development Director Daniel Stevenson that the situation is clear: The city must invest in parking to encourage economic growth. Meters are to work hand in hand with the proposed parking garage, which is slated to be built with TIF money that is designated for downtown improvements.

The meters are just part of the plan to provide parking for employees, customers and tenants of all the new projects being developed for the once-bustling downtown. The mills in the area ”“ Pepperell Mill Campus, Riverdam and Lincoln ”“ have 1.2 million square feet of vacant space, meaning that 2,000 parking spaces would be needed if all that space were to be filled, according to Stevenson.

It’s unfortunate that the citizens of Biddeford felt compelled to petition against the parking meters in the first place, especially since a detailed proposal has not yet been brought forth. The situation has only been made worse by the council’s decision to add a two-year time limit to the petition’s wording, which has resulted in a lawsuit.

Under this provision, approval of the parking meters have a two-year window, regardless of how the vote goes. So if voters approve the meters, they must be installed within two years. If it fails, the ban would last two years, and parking meters could be discussed again at a later date. Biddeford resident Ron Peaker has filed suit against the city, claiming that the two-year time limit is a “substantive change” to the petition wording. The petitioners certainly made it clear publicly that they would like to see street parking remain free indefinitely, but it’s up to the courts to decide if that was clear in the original petition.

We feel that a two-year time limit is bad either way: Meters should not be installed before a parking garage is in operation because it will cause additional public backlash without a way to demonstrate the bigger picture of the overall parking plan. On the other hand, if there is no limit, the city’s hands will be tied with regard to this aspect of the downtown parking plan until such a time as they are forced to bring it to a politically charged public vote.

The city leaders, most notably Casavant and Stevenson, want to move forward with this parking plan because they know it’s a necessary investment for the city to grow its tax base. Adding the two-year limit seems to be their way to avoid butting heads with the voters when they seek to move forward with the parking plan in the next few years. With the limit, they can bring parking meters back in two years, but without it they will have to ask for public support of the plan and risk backlash for going against the voters’ will.

That’s where the trouble comes in, and it’s why we agree with Casavant that this petition never should have been sent forth by the council. Nobody wants to pay for parking, and it’s a lot easier to say “no” to parking meters than it is to take the long view, learn about the overall plan and the reasoning behind it.

A “yes” vote for meters ”“ and the garage ”“ makes sense in the long run, but it’s unlikely to come from a city-wide vote, and that’s a shame. Residents can’t say that they want to see these mills redeveloped ”“ which will bring jobs, increase the tax base and improve the overall economy ”“ without recognizing that such development requires improved infrastructure and its associated costs.

The citizens of Biddeford have charged the city leaders with providing infrastructure so the city can grow. Like the decision to close the Maine Energy incinerator, this parking plan is best decided upon by those who have been elected to become fully educated on the matter and make decisions in the best interest of the city. To avoid not only this lawsuit but also the stonewalling of downtown economic development, the council should reverse their vote and refuse to send this petition on to the voters in November.

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Today’s editorial was written by Managing Editor Kristen Schulze Muszynski on behalf of the Journal Tribune Editorial Board. Questions? Comments? Contact Kristen by calling 282-1535, ext. 322, or via email at [email protected]