BIDDEFORD — Roger Chretien has seen a lot of changes during five decades of working in downtown Biddeford, but one thing has stayed the same.

“Parking is always, always, always an issue,” he said while cutting a client’s hair in his barber shop near the corner of Main and Alfred streets.

Parking has been an especially heated topic in the six months since the city began charging people to park in municipal lots and prohibited overnight parking on Main Street. The new fees and rules also coincided with more aggressive parking enforcement citywide and a big jump in parking tickets.

City officials say the new fees and rules are a necessary step to control limited parking capacity amid an economic resurgence that is drawing more people and vehicles downtown, and they point out that on-street and short-term parking are still free. But some residents and business owners argue the fees violate a 2014 referendum vote against parking meters and may drive people away from the area.

Roger Chretien, longtime barber on Main Street in Biddeford cuts the hair of Ryan Parker at Roger’s Barbershop. “This is a downtown area. Parking will always be a minor issue,” Chretien said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Since the changes went into effect in November, one resident has filed two lawsuits against the city, several downtown business owners have hung signs in their windows protesting the changes and more than 100 voters signed a petition to force the City Council to hold a meeting at Biddeford High School this Wednesday about parking.

“It’s been very confusing to many people and they’re upset,” said Councilor Laura Seaver, who voted against the parking changes.

The new parking fees and rules, together with beefed up enforcement citywide, has brought a surge in the number of parking tickets issued. From January through May, the police department issued 2,609 tickets, an increase of 211 percent over the 838 issued in the same period last year. According to police department data, 1,715 of those tickets were issued for violations in municipal parking lots.

The city has recorded nearly $69,000 in revenue from parking tickets so far this year, compared to $67,400 for all of last year. That money goes in the parking fund along with revenue generated from hourly and month parking permits. The parking fund will be used to pay for a parking garage the city plans to build on the land formerly occupied by the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator.

The city has sold 175 monthly permits for downtown lots, generating more than $53,000 in revenue since Nov. 1. Those monthly permits range from $35 to park at night to $65 for a permit for workday parking. The city has generated more than $29,000 in revenue from hourly parking permits purchased from kiosks since November.

SIGNS ARE CONFUSING

Chretien, the barber, started working downtown in 1966 and has parked in the same city-owned parking lot on Foss Street for 40 years. He never had to pay until November, when he had to buy a monthly permit at the introductory rate of $40. That went up to $65 a few months later. He worries others who work downtown can’t afford the extra expense.

Chretien said his customers have talked about the parking situation, but they rarely say they have trouble finding free spaces and he hasn’t lost any customers.

“Nobody has been adamant they’re not coming downtown,” he said. “This is a downtown area. Parking will always be a minor issue.”

Parking has been an especially heated topic in Biddeford in the six months since the city began charging people to park in municipal lots and prohibited overnight parking on Main Street, where these cars are parked. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

There has been a more noticeable impact at George’s Sandwich Shop, where Joan Ladakakos has a front-row view of the confusion over parking in the largest downtown parking lots. The shop, owned by Ladakakos’s husband, has been open for more than 70 years and customers are used to parking and running in to grab a sandwich.

Before the council approved paid parking, Ladakakos told them she worried her customers wouldn’t come if they had to pay to park. Now she and her employees go outside to show people the spaces where they can park for free because the signs are confusing, she said. Inside, a sign on the counter suggests customers share concerns with city councilors.

“The feedback from customers is it’s very confusing. If they don’t need to come to Biddeford for any other reason, they won’t come,” Ladakakos said. “They don’t want to be aggravated by the whereabouts of parking.”

Ladakakos said customers who have received $35 ticket for parking violations have vowed they won’t come back. She said she’s losing that money at the same time she’s absorbing an added $260 for four parking permits for herself and her employees.

Stories like that are a concern for Seaver, who said people often approach her to complain about parking.

“They’re losing money while at the same time people are saying they won’t go downtown because of the parking,” she said.

ROLLOUT NOT ENTIRELY SMOOTH

Whitney Graham of Durham, left, and Jenna Larochelle-Parry of Hollis are used to parking for free in Biddeford. “I felt $2 was a little steep,” Graham said after they parked in a lot downtown this month. “That’s more expensive than Portland.” Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Last week the City Council voted to reconfigure the “green” and “yellow” parking lots off Franklin near George’s, Louis Pizza and the Palace Diner to reduce confusion over spaces designated for 30-minute, hourly and monthly parking.

City Councilor Norman Belanger, who chairs the parking committee tasked with monitoring and adjusting the parking plan, said those parking lots have been the biggest source of confusion for users. He said the city will continue to listen to business owners and residents and make changes as needed.

Belanger admits the city’s rollout of the parking plan hasn’t been entirely smooth and there has been confusion by people trying to figure out the system.

“I would ask the citizens to bear with us as we work our way through this,” he said. “It’s not a perfect system, but we’re hoping to make the downtown better through all this, not harm anyone.”

Seaver is more blunt in her assessment of the parking situation.

“We’ve screwed up here,” she said. “We as a city have failed to make it clear.”

On a recent Wednesday, a steady stream of cars pulled in to the parking lots off Federal Street, most full of people headed to eat at Palace Diner. There was little confusion among them about where to park, but some people were surprised they had to pay if they plan to stay longer than two hours.

Friends Jenna Larochelle-Parry and Whitney Graham had not been anticipating they would have to pay for parking because they used to find it free.

“I felt $2 was a little steep,” Graham said. “That’s more expensive than Portland.”

Rory O’Connor, who drove from Westbrook to grab breakfast at Palace Diner, wasn’t fazed by the parking kiosks.

“It’s not the funnest, but you have to do it,” he said. “Portland has it. I imagine other cities will follow suit.”

Rory O’Connor of Westbrook pays for parking in a lot near the Palace Diner in downtown Biddeford. “It’s not the funnest, but you have to do it,” he said. Shawn Patrick Ouellette/Staff Photographer

Biddeford resident Ryan Parker, who was waiting for a haircut at Roger’s barbershop, said he’s always been able to find free parking downtown, but can see why people get upset if they have to pay.

“If people have to pay to park, they’re not going to want to come,” he said.

Councilor Amy Clearwater represents the downtown ward and said she often asks people how they feel about parking. She hasn’t heard from business owners who say parking is pushing them out of Biddeford, but she does hear from some people who are confused and frustrated, especially about the green lot.

“This is a big change. I feel that frustration for sure,” she said. “But there’s a misconception you absolutely have to pay to come downtown.”

Resident Jason Litalien believes the issue amounts to more than misconceptions. He said he hears regularly from residents who vow they won’t go downtown and business owners who want to leave. He has filed two lawsuits against the city; the first was dismissed last month.

In a federal lawsuit filed last month, Litalien says the city is ignoring “the will of the people” by installing parking meters, or kiosks, against the wishes of residents who voted five years ago not to put parking meters downtown. The 2014 referendum – which asked “shall the City of Biddeford install parking meters in the greater downtown area?” – failed by a vote of 6,761 to 959.

Litalien claims in his lawsuit that the city is violating free speech under the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the Constitution by going against the will of voters. He also maintains the city is violating free speech and due process rights of citizens under the Maine Constitution.

In a response filed in court, the city denied all of the allegations from Litalien’s lawsuit and asserts that instituting paid parking in certain designated lots is “an administrative and not legislative function and as such is not subject to referendum.”

In addition to the lawsuits, Litalien led the effort to collect more than 100 signatures from voters to call the general meeting of the citizens, scheduled for 6-7:30 p.m. Wednesday in the Little Theater at Biddeford High School.

“We’re going to present an order to the City Council to cease all paid parking and remove the meters they installed illegally,” Litalien said.

Under the city charter, the City Council must call a general meeting of the citizens when presented with 100 signatures of registered voters, but the council is not required to take any action in response to the meeting. The majority of councilors indicated last week they are planning to attend to listen to concerns.


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