BIDDEFORD — More than a year after Biddeford implemented a new paid parking program, Joan Ladakakos still fields a couple of calls a day from customers asking where they should park when they come to George’s Sandwich Shop.

“It’s a learning curve,” she said. “Once they know, they have it.”

That learning curve resulted in a lot more money flowing to the city last year from parking tickets.

Biddeford police issued 5,195 parking tickets totaling $178,370 in fines, more than doubling the 1,969 tickets issued and $71,170 generated in fines the previous year. While those tickets are issued for a variety of reasons – from blocking a driveway to parking in a snow removal zone – the majority are for cars that parked without purchasing a permit or that overstayed the time allotted.

Police issued 2,445 tickets for failure to purchase a permit, the majority of which were for cars in downtown municipal lots or at beach parking lots. Those tickets generated $85,815 in fines, up from $8,800 the previous year and zero the year before that, according to the police department’s annual report. The department also issued 781 tickets for overtime parking and another 955 tickets for parking in a no parking area or a permit-only area, it says.

Some downtown business owners say they saw a drop in business last summer and fielded lots of questions from confused customers. But, business owners and city officials say, people seem to be adjusting to the parking restrictions, and education appears to be reducing confusion.

Under a parking management plan that took effect in November 2018, the city began charging people to park in downtown municipal lots. Most lots are free for the first two hours, but drivers must enter their license plate number at a kiosk to get a ticket to display on their dashboard. Parking on downtown streets continues to be free but limited to two or four hours for most spots. Several lots were set aside for people who purchase monthly passes from the city.

Those changes coincided with increased parking enforcement both downtown and in parking lots at city beaches, resulting in a surge in tickets issued by the police department.

The city hired three part-time parking enforcement officers, increasing enforcement from 40 hours a week to about 100 hours.

In the months after the start of paid parking, there was outcry from business owners and residents concerned the changes would discourage people from going downtown and hurt small businesses. Residents gathered signatures and held a forum to air their concerns to city leaders. A committee tasked with monitoring the parking changes made adjustments to signs and added more free short-term parking spots.

City Manager Jim Bennett said city officials are no longer inundated with complaints about parking.

“We’re not hearing the pushback in terms of paying for the parking,” Bennett said. “Now what’s happening is we are more likely to hear ‘Where do we park?’ because they’re having difficulty (finding) parking, especially as more construction projects are going on.”

City officials say the new fees and rules were 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 critics questioned the necessity of paid parking and said the new plan went against a 2014 referendum vote to ban downtown parking meters. That prompted resident and former mayoral candidate Jason Litalian to file two lawsuits against the city. One of those lawsuits was dismissed by a judge, and the other was withdrawn by Litalian, who last week declined to discuss the city’s parking program.

A sign at the entrance to one of Biddeford’s Yellow Lots instructs people to get a ticket, even for the first free two hours. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

CONFUSION FROM THE START

Bennett said there is “no question” there was confusion about the parking plan from the beginning.

“We could have done a better job rolling out the program,” he said. “When somebody gets something for free and now they have to pay for it, they’re not excited about it.”

Ladakakos, whose husband, John Ladakokos, owns the popular sandwich shop on Franklin Street, agrees that the rollout of the program was not great. There was a noticeable negative impact on her business last summer as customers stayed away. Some people thought they’d have to pay to park on the streets or didn’t realize they could park in lots for free for two hours.

There are free two-hour, 15-minute and 30-minute parking spaces within steps of George’s, but many people still seem to think they always have to pay to park downtown, Ladakakos said.

“My take on it is if they had done this right from the beginning, it would have led to less confusion,” she said. “People say they get confused and say if they don’t have to come downtown, they won’t come downtown. We don’t want our customers to get a $35 ticket because they’re in here five to 10 minutes while they get a sandwich.”

Ladakakos is, however, thankful for the adjustments the city made to add more short-term spaces near her business and to clarify where people should park, though she says some signs could be bigger or more clear to avoid confusion.

Many of the adjustments to parking made by the Downtown Committee in response to confusion and complaints were in the lot near George’s. The city reconfigured parking lots on Federal and Franklin streets to better designate spots reserved for monthly permit holders and ones available for anyone to use.

Police Chief Roger Beaupre said it “took some doing” to get people to understand they had to enter their license plate number at the kiosk to record the time they parked, even if they were staying for less than two hours.

“People saw the sign that said two hours free and didn’t read on to see they had to enter their plate number,” he said.

A parking enforcement officer fills out a ticket for an SUV in one of Biddeford’s Yellow Lots on Wednesday. Parking is free for the first two hours in the Yellow Lots but require parkers to get a ticket and put it on their dashboard. Gregory Rec/Staff Photographer

Richard Hubbard, owner of Biddeford Pawn and Gold, was among the downtown business owners who hung signs in their windows protesting paid parking. It’s still tucked in the corner of the window of his Main Street shop, but he said the parking changes haven’t had much of an impact on his business or his customers.

When the changes first went into effect in late 2018, Hubbard heard plenty of complaints about parking fees, and there was concern about how it could hurt small businesses. But his customers, who are generally in and out of the store quickly, are able to find free spaces right out front or around the corner, he said.

“Everyone’s adapted, and it’s settled down,” Hubbard said. “You don’t hear it at all anymore.”

BEACH KIOSKS

In 2019, the city added kiosks at beach parking lots that allow people to buy day passes, which Beaupre believes has improved customer service and compliance. Previously, people had to drive 9 miles from the beach to either City Hall or the police station to buy a day permit, which didn’t guarantee a spot was available for them when they got back to the beach.

The police department also now has its parking enforcement officers monitor the beach parking lots instead of relying on patrol officers to check cars when they have time, Beaupre said.

Bennett, the city manager, said the Downtown Committee will continue to make adjustments to the parking plan as needed, but those changes are not likely to be dramatic.

Recently, the committee added free two-hour spots at 3 Lincoln St., the former site of the Maine Energy Recovery Co. trash incinerator. That decision was made after a nearby lot often used by customers of Mulligan’s was blocked off to allow for construction at the Lincoln Mill.

“(The adjustments) are going to be continuous over the next year or two as we have other projects going on and construction happening,” Bennett said.

The city also anticipates adding another 640 parking spots downtown when a parking garage is built starting this spring. The garage is expected to open on Lincoln Street in the spring of 2021.


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