Biddeford residents will face one of the state’s more unusual ballot questions when they go to the polls Nov. 4 – a proposal that could ban parking meters in the city, even though there are no immediate plans to install them.

While street parking is free in Biddeford, the idea of parking meters has been studied as a possible piece of a larger plan to manage downtown growth and redevelopment. Some residents, who petitioned to put the question on the ballot, say they are being proactive because any future decision to charge for parking would harm downtown businesses.

The question comes at a time when city officials say Biddeford needs to consider a plan to manage downtown parking in the future. They say a parking garage will be needed to accommodate growth in the downtown and mill districts, which have seen a resurgence in activity in the last couple of years.

In 2012, the city commissioned a study on parking in the downtown and mill districts, which sit next to each other along the Saco River. The study developed a conceptual plan for a $12 million parking garage and for parking meters, which would cost about $400,000 to install. Revenue from the garage and the meters would be used to pay off the cost of building the garage, according to the conceptual plan.

The plan has never been formally considered by the City Council. Nevertheless, the conceptual plan for a parking garage caught the attention of a small group of residents who balk at the idea of installing parking meters downtown if a garage is built. Currently, parking in downtown Biddeford is limited to two hours on the street and there is no charge for parking in public lots.

Paul Therrien led the effort to collect signatures to put the parking meter ban on the ballot. He said he has no trouble garnering support from residents who don’t want to pay for parking and business owners who worry meters will keep customers away.

“We’re opposed to meters because the business community doesn’t want it,” he said. “They say we don’t need to discourage people from shopping in our stores.”

Mayor Alan Casavant said the referendum question is premature. The City Council has not even considered a plan that involves a parking garage or parking meters, he said.

“We’re essentially having a referendum on a topic that no one has fully discussed and on a topic that is only mentioned in a plan that was developed in a parking study,” he said. “It’s really tough to take a position on something that is just theoretical.”

Even before the City Council placed the question on the ballot, there was debate at City Hall about the way the referendum is worded.

The question asks: “Shall the City of Biddeford install parking meters in the greater downtown Biddeford area?” Officials questioned the definition of “greater downtown Biddeford” and whether there would be a time frame to install the meters, but a city attorney determined the question could not be substantially altered to answer those questions.

Casavant also said the question is confusing to voters because a “no” vote would ban parking meters forever, while a “yes” vote requires the city to install them some time in the future – even though there is still no plan to do so.

Casavant said the real motivation behind the question appears to be an attempt to derail plans for a parking garage in the future.

“It’s very confusing and it’s a disingenuous question,” he said. “The purpose of the question has nothing to do with parking meters. It’s people who are against garages who think they can stop the garage by stopping parking meters. It’s not going to stop parking garages.”

But Therrien, who circulated the petition, disagrees there is anything wrong with the question. He acknowledges he and other supporters of the ban don’t want to see a public parking garage in the mill district, and said he would prefer that a garage be located near Washington Street, closer to Main Street businesses.

“The question is worded exactly the way we wanted, a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no,'” he said. “There’s nothing confusing about it.”

Daniel Stevenson, Biddeford’s economic development director, said the city isn’t taking a position on the referendum, but has been providing information online and on handouts about parking downtown and the results of a 2012 parking study.

Even if residents vote to ban parking meters, city officials will still have to consider a parking garage to accommodate new business growth downtown and the redevelopment of former textile mills into housing and business centers, Stevenson said. He said one of the first thing business owners ask about when they consider Biddeford is whether there is adequate parking.

Because of the way the referendum question is worded, the city is obligated to put in parking meters if the ban is rejected. But there is no time frame for installing meters outlined in the referendum. It would ultimately be up to the City Council to approve a plan to pay for, install and manage the meters.

“Regardless of the vote, a parking management system and a plan being implemented is not going away,” Stevenson said.

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