FREEPORT, Maine — Two years of studies, planning and debate came to a head Tuesday night when the Town Council passed new rules on village parking requirements.
The revised requirements will ease the cost on small businesses and continue to spare owners of so-called grandfathered properties.
In short, the new rules:
• Reduce parking requirements for upper-level or basement businesses and restaurants by 50 percent.
• Exempt public restrooms from being counted toward a business’ size.
• Require one parking spot per one-bedroom dwelling, 1.75 spaces per two-bedroom dwelling, 2 spaces per three-bedroom dwelling, and a half space for each bedroom thereafter, instead of a flat requirement of two spaces per dwelling unit.
• Reduce parking requirements for upper-level office space by 50 percent.
Since the mid-1970s, businesses and landlords in downtown Freeport have been required to provide parking spaces based on their floorspace and other factors. Properties that had fewer parking spaces than are required by the formula are required to lease parking spaces from other property owners at market value.
Recent studies, however, showed that the town’s parking supply of 2,900 spaces exceeds demand, so the formula for determining parking requirements was targeted for an update.
But finding the right update proved challenging.
First, a consultant developed a recommendation. Then, the Planning Board took a crack at it. Finally, the Traffic and Parking Committee submitted its recommendation.
After six Town Council meetings on the subject during recent years, the council on Tuesday faced all three recommendations. Chairman Jim Hendricks offered a prescient prologue to the hour-and-a-half discussion that would soon follow.
“I’d like to say we have a straightforward process this evening, but we really don’t,” he said. “We have three entirely different proposals in front of us.”
That assessment followed a 30-minute public hearing, during which several business owners, stakeholders and attorneys made pitches for and against the various recommendations.
Christina White, executive director of the Freeport Historical Society, told the council her nonprofit organization is sustained in part by the 15 parking spaces it leases to L.L. Bean. If the parking requirements are reduced, the financial impact would be significant.
Traffic and Parking Committee member Gary Profenno argued for stasis, saying that unknown variables such as an improving economy and the new train station could ultimately create more parking demand from shoppers and rail commuters.
The aspect that drew the most ire, however, was the consultant’s recommendation to lift the “grandfathered” status of pre-1976 commercial buildings that are exempt from the village parking requirement.
The town estimates that 75 percent of downtown businesses are grandfathered, while the other 25 percent, many of which are small businesses, are burdened with providing parking for the whole. The consultant’s recommendation sought to even the playing field.
Two lawyers representing property owners saw things differently. They both argued that lifting the exception would violate Maine law and suggested litigation would soon follow.
After the public hearing, at-large Councilor Rich DeGrandpre launched into an impassioned defense of grandfathering.
“Grandfathering is a place we shouldn’t be messing around,” he said. “This is a very slippery slope. This town has been down some slippery slopes quite a few times and it’s not pretty at the end.”
Vice Chairwoman Kristina Egan, on the other hand, hinted at a general inequality within the current system and argued for a gradual phasing out of grandfathering. Egan, who was absent, submitted her opinion in a written statement that was read by Hendricks.
“Leaving grandfathering in place indefinitely is unfair to new businesses and discourages new businesses from coming to Freeport,” she said.
In the end, however, the councilors voted 4-2 to strike any language that would remove the exemption, and later voted 4-2 to accept the new rules, which will result in about 100 fewer parking spaces required of downtown businesses, restaurants and landlords. Councilors Melanie Sachs and Andy Wellen voted against the new rules.
Village parking regulations were first introduced in 1976, then revised over the next 30 years. Until Tuesday’s vote, the most recent parking formula had been in place since the 1990s – a period of notable retail growth.
A 2007 study determined that the parking supply in Freeport had increased by more than 600 spaces since the 1990s and the total number of spaces was ample.