CAPE ELIZABETH — About 1 million people visit Fort Williams Park every year, and now most of them will have to pay to park in prime spots closest to Portland Head Light and scenic paths overlooking Casco Bay during the park’s busy season.

Driven by increased tourism and rising maintenance costs, the Town Council decided Monday to install a pay-and-display parking system at the 90-acre park that used to be a military installation. The vote was 7-0.

Starting in July, nonresidents who park in “premium” parking areas will be charged $2 per hour for a two-hour minimum or $10 for a full day. From May through October, automated kiosks will dispense tickets to be displayed on dashboards. Three parking areas to the rear of the park will remain free to all visitors during the tourist season, and parking will be free throughout the park November through April.

Residents of Cape Elizabeth, a town of nearly 10,000, will continue to park free of charge with vehicle parking stickers. Nonresidents can purchase a season pass for $15, so residents of neighboring communities can still visit the park for a “reasonable” fee, councilors said.

“I really think this has worked out to be a great solution,” Councilor Caitlyn Jordan said. “It’s still free. It just depends on where you want to park.”

The parking fees are expected to cover the park’s $300,000 annual operating budget, which is part of the $34.1 million overall town budget for fiscal 2020 that the council approved Monday night.

Town voters rejected proposals for pay-and-display parking programs at the park at referendums in 2006 and 2010, but neither contained details about how they would operate or who would be charged.

Since then, annual traffic at the park has nearly doubled, from about 500,000 visitors in 2010 to 900,000 to 1 million visitors last year, town officials said. About 60 percent of visitors now come from outside Maine, based on a license plate census conducted over the last year, Town Manager Matt Sturgis said.

Ravi Nandi takes a photo of his wife, Sushama, on Monday with Portland Head Light in the background. The Nandis, visiting from India, said they wouldn’t object to paying to park at Fort Williams. Press Herald photo by Gregory Rec

Councilors expressed regret for imposing fees on nonresident visitors, but noted the rising cost of maintaining the park and town roads because of increased traffic. The central parking lot is being rebuilt this spring at a cost of $450,000 to town taxpayers.

“I’ve come to realize our beautiful park is a destination for people now,” Councilor Penny Jordan said. “We have to be a bit more pragmatic about (maintaining) it.”

Ravi and Sushama Nandi were among the few visitors at the park around lunchtime Monday, when a brisk breeze made a sunny spring day feel more like winter.

The Nandis hail from Indore, India, and they had no problem with the idea of paying to park at Fort Williams. They could see evidence of ongoing park improvements everywhere, including fresh pavement and new benches and fencing.

“It’s OK if a cost is required to be paid if it is used for the maintenance of the park,” Ravi Nandi said. “We have been paying to park at other parks and would be willing to pay a small fee here.”

The town sought proposals from parking management companies last November. Unified Parking Partners, a Portland company that has generated controversy recently for ousting parking tenants from a multi-level garage near the Casco Bay Lines ferry terminal, submitted the only proposal.

The council authorized the town manager Monday to negotiate a contract with Unified Parking, urging him to require fair parking enforcement practices that reflect “the values of Cape Elizabeth.”

Unified Parking will install 10 kiosks in five “premium” parking areas of the park, including 288 parking spaces near the lighthouse, beach and parade grounds. To the rear of the park, more than 144 spaces near the Children’s Garden, playground and Officers’ Row will remain free to all visitors.

According to Unified Parking’s proposal, the town will receive $317,000, or 80 percent, of the $396,000 that the parking system is projected to collect in fiscal 2020. Unified Parking will retain 20 percent, or about $79,000.

The town already charged $100 for each tour bus and $25 for each commercial passenger van entering the park.

Only two residents addressed the parking fee issue at Monday’s council meeting.

Jerry Kneller said he was “150 percent  in favor” of the pay-and-display program to help diversify the town’s revenue base beyond property taxes. Ralph Pride said he was willing to pay taxes to keep the park free for everyone.

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