FREEPORT, Maine — In a town where shopping is king, being able to find a parking space is like holding the keys to the kingdom.
But the current retail environment here isn’t as robust as it was more than 20 years ago, when Freeport’s parking ordinance last was overhauled.
As a result, municipal planning officials say small businesses are bearing an undue burden.
Town Planner Donna Larson said there is adequate parking in the village retail area to support current economic activity.
“There is no shortage of parking in the village right now,” Larson said.
But due to a quirk of Freeport’s Comprehensive Plan, small-business owners are held to the same parking requirements as larger businesses. Because they have less foot traffic and do proportionally less volume than their bigger, more visible and accessible counterparts, the parking requirements are “difficult and expensive,” Larson said.
A proposal recommended by the Planning Board would change that. A public hearing on the changes is scheduled for the Town Council’s Jan. 22 meeting at 6:30 p.m.
The current ordinance requires shops to provide one customer parking space for every 150 square feet of retail floor space, Larson said. Shopkeepers receive a 25 percent discount if the spaces are not designated specifically for their own shop, but rather are kept open for shared parking.
One employee space per 1,000 square feet also is required, which does not qualify for the discount.
There are “right around 3,000 parking spaces” in Freeport, most of which are privately owned but leased out and used for public parking, Larson said.
Municipally-owned spaces are leased at $50 to $80 per space per month, depending on factors such as the term of the lease.
During a recent review of the town’s Comprehensive Plan, traffic consultants Vanasse Hangen Brustlin Inc., of Watertown, Mass., counted and analyzed the town’s number of parking spaces in relation to the total square footage of retail space.
Planning Board members, in turn, recommended several policy changes be adopted by the Town Council:
- Retail and office spaces located off Main Street, on upper levels or on side streets, will have to provide fewer spaces. “Hopefully, that will encourage some second-floor occupancy,” Larson said, “and it also applies to use as office space.”
- Apartment owners, too, will be charged less for their spaces because tenants typically use those spaces at night, or during off-peak shopping hours, which leaves the slots available for use by consumers.
- Shops that offer public restrooms would have the percentage of floor space occupied by the restrooms subtracted from their overall footprint, which is how parking requirements are calculated.
“Businesses that provide restrooms to the public are providing a service to the town,” Larson said, “and it seemed like they were having to provide parking on top of it all.”
Larson estimates that the above measures could combine to free up about 100 spaces.
Board members also rejected a proposal that would have eliminated parking exemptions for longtime businesses that existed before the parking ordinance was adopted in the early 1980s.
However, there are concerns that the parking changes will alleviate financial strain from some businesses only to increase the burden on others.
Some businesses — including the town itself and the Freeport Historical Society — own excess parking and lease spaces to businesses that need them. Changing the requirements could mean those businesses will lose revenue streams that, in the historical society’s case, keep them in business.
Those discrepancies will have to be worked out as the process moves forward, Larson said.
Similar zoning changes being recommended also would loosen regulations governing agriculturally zoned property, as well as allow property owners to convert retail space to rental housing without undergoing site plan review — as long as the building’s footprint remains unchanged and there is no new external construction.
Different standards would apply to converted residential properties, depending on whether they are apartments or stand-alone single family homes.