Thursday, August 11, 2005

Fort Williams fees on the way

Published in the Current

CAPE ELIZABETH (Aug 11, 2005): With the Cape Elizabeth Town Council poised to look at a new report on fees at Fort Williams, November's election could decide whether visitors to the park will pay admission.

Although fees at the park have been shot down repeatedly in the past, a majority of councilors now say they either support fees or are at least open to the idea.

Two sitting councilors are in favor of fees at the park. In interviews with the Current, one additional councilor said he is “likely to favor” them and two others said they are considering the idea.

The remaining two oppose fees on a philosophical basis, with one, Councilor Jack Roberts saying “I think they're a terrible idea.” If the town is going to charge admission to the landmark, which has been kept free until now, “why don't we just gate the community,” he said.

Five different ways fees could be charged are outlined in a report from a Cape Elizabeth town commission, and will be discussed by the Town Council this fall. Councilors say any final decision will be only after public hearings and debate, bringing the decision after the Nov. 8 local election, when the occupants of two council seats are up to voters.

A proposal for fees was rejected by the council in 2003, considered again during 2004’s budget process and then put off, and was floated as one possible consequence if the 1 percent property-tax cap referendum had passed in November 2004.

A 2003 statewide survey by Critical Insights, a Portland research firm, showed 74 percent of Mainers supported a $5 annual per-vehicle fee at the fort; 69 percent of people in Southern Maine supported it. The question has not been asked since then, according to company president MaryEllen FitzGerald, a Cape resident.

“We may ask it again” in a September statewide survey, she said, adding that she did not expect a big change in the outcome.

The latest report, from the Fort Williams Advisory Commission, gives five options: charging a per-person fee, which would extend to cyclists and walkers, as well as people who drive to the park; charging a per-vehicle entry fee, which has raised concerns about traffic backups on Shore Road; charging a per-vehicle exit fee, which would move any traffic backups inside the park; installing “pay and display” parking meter machines; or an “envelope system” based on the largely voluntary process used in the White Mountain National Forest.

“For me it comes down to this: The park right now is free for everyone except residents of Cape Elizabeth, who pay for it with their tax dollars. I’d like to see that reversed,” said Councilor Mary Ann Lynch, a leading proponent of park entry fees.

Lynch said specifically that she does not want to charge walkers and cyclists, or Cape residents, for entry.

Need for money

Upkeep of the park costs taxpayers $115,000 in operating expenses and $37,000 in capital improvements in this year’s budget, according to Town Manager Mike McGovern.

“The park is expensive to maintain, and we are not really maintaining it,” Lynch said, citing the estimated $500,000 cost to preserve Goddard Mansion as a ruin.

She said a small fee for a year-long pass could bring in a lot of money. Estimates from 2003 indicated that charging $5 per car and $40 per bus would raise about $200,000, about 70 percent of which would come from out-of-staters. About 20 percent would come from Maine residents – half of that from Greater Portland residents.

Swift-Kayatta said she likes the idea of a fee “in the $5 per year range. … I don’t think it’s unfair” to have people who use the park contribute to its upkeep.

McGovern said he has “no idea” how many people visit the fort each year, and said the 1 million figure the town has used for more than a decade “seems high.”

Lynch said a $5 or $10 fee is similar to fees at other lighthouses she has visited, and less than beach parking in other towns, such as Scarborough’s $10-per-day parking at Pine Point.

“Let’s raise the money from our vacationing tourists,” said Lynch.

The plan could run up against the Fort Williams Charitable Foundation, created by the council in 2001 to raise money to support the park’s operations.

“For whatever reason it has not been as successful a fund-raising effort as people had hoped,” Lynch said. The foundation has asked for an easement on the fort property be granted to the Cape Elizabeth Land Trust, saying the park needs “permanent protection” to garner big donors' dollars. The foundation disputes town officials’ claims that Fort Williams Park is already permanently protected, without an easement.

Councilor Carol Fritz said the foundation’s lack of success is because the council has “put a real damper on” its fund-raising ability, by refusing to grant an easement.

Election outcome key

Lynch said she expects the workshop to lead eventually to a formal proposal for the council to vote on.

Timing matters: Two years ago the council rejected the idea of fees by a consensus, with five councilors objecting to them and with Lynch and Anne Swift-Kayatta in the minority, supporting fees. Of the five-councilor majority, only two, Fritz and Roberts, are still on the council.

The seats now held by Roberts and Swift-Kayatta are expiring this year. Both are still undecided on a reelection bid.

Fritz said Tuesday she is “still pretty much opposed to having fees,” saying free access to the fort is “something that Cape Elizabeth contributes to the regional communities,” though if she had to choose, she would pick the “pay and display” option, as less obtrusive and possibly cheaper.

Fritz noted that three previous reports from the Fort Williams Advisory Commission have opposed fees. “It’s been shot down so many times, and the public says ‘no we don’t want it,’” she said.

Citing several local spots that are free for the public, including the trail around Back Cove and the Eastern Promenade, both in Portland, as well as Willard Beach and Bug Light Park in South Portland, Fritz said she “would hate to see us start a trend that closes off or begins to really charge for all these wonderful places.”

She also was concerned that fees could lower attendance at the museum and reduce income at the gift shop, which would reduce town revenue now used to support the fort, and about public perceptions of Cape Elizabeth.

“People think of the community as wealthy,” she said. If the town began charging, “would we then look like we’re trying to keep people out and have an elitist kind of park?”

Roberts could not be reached for comment.

Of the three councilors elected since the 2003 rejection, none has had to take a formal position on fees at the fort.

Councilor David Backer said Wednesday that despite his opposition to fees when he ran for council two years ago, “I’m coming around in my thinking.”

He cited the council’s self-imposed 3 percent spending cap as a reason “all sources of revenue have to be looked at as fair game. … I think that fees at Fort Williams may be an appropriate way to help supplement the income-versus-expenditure collision” the council is now experiencing. “At this point I’m likely to favor fees at the park,” he said, though he is not sure how they should be administered.

Councilor Paul McKenney said Tuesday that he had not made up his mind on fees. “It would be nice to see Fort Williams as a self-sufficient entity, but I’m not sure that fees are the way” to achieve that. His “first choice” would not be fees, but he said it is “reasonable” to ask park users to support the park financially.

Councilor Michael Mowles blamed the lack of state tax reform for the issue’s reemergence. “I don’t like the idea of having to charge fees at Fort Williams, but I’m open to considering the idea,” Mowles said Wednesday. “Given our current tax situation I’m more open to considering fees than I would have been a year ago,” he said.