Locals have raised concerns in recent weeks about Central Elgin’s attempt to offset municipal expenditures with more user fees for off-street parking.

The worry is that summer tourists and visitors may try to skirt off-street parking costs by either avoiding the village altogether or by flooding free parking spaces on side streets and main thoroughfares.

The latter scenario threatens to exacerbate parking issues that have dogged the village – particularly the downtown – for years. And while tourists and visitors are, for the most part, welcomed by village residents, and certainly are vital to Elgin County’s economy, perennial parking issues are putting a strain on the relationship.

At times, municipal regulations and enforcement don’t seem to scratch the surface of the parking mayhem caused by tens of thousands of people enjoying Port Stanley’s summer attractions.

Many tourists and visitors are already in the habit of dumping cars on streets, not only monopolizing on-street parking spaces throughout the daylight hours, but also blocking driveways and in some cases, impacting emergency access to the beaches.

On-street parking in the downtown can be a free-for-all, as there are no painted lines to control overcrowding. Street signs offer some guidance, but they may also seem confusing. On the east side of the village, a sign offers a one-hour on-street parking limit from 9 a.m. to 6 p.m. On the west side, another sign offers a two-hour limit from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Many signs indicate no time limits at all. There is no parking bylaw on the Central Elgin website for clarification.

As a result, if they choose to drive, Port Stanley residents may continue up the road to St. Thomas to fulfill their day-to-day shopping needs because there’s no parking here. And the village entrepreneurs that locals would like to support are similarly affected. Business owners and their employees struggle to support their clientele because they can’t park either.

“If they can’t find a parking spot, locals won’t come,” said Dustin Allen, proprietor at Ports Pets, and President of the Port Stanley Business Improvement Area (BIA).

“There are a lot of things that still need to be looked at,” added Allen. “There’s nothing we can do about what’s been done. At least we can work with them. Now’s the time for us to say it.”

Allen is referring to the new Rates and Fees Bylaw approved by Council on November 8, 2021, expanding the village’s off-street parking network. Allen is currently consulting with other BIA members, with hopes of corroborating with Council to develop a complementary on-street parking system.

Central Elgin’s User Fee Committee – chaired by Deputy Mayor Tom Marks – decided to expand the off-street parking network after a review last year of the $412,317 that the municipality generated from 5.2 acres of space on four lots.

The off-street parking lots – referred to as Main Beach, Old Ball Park, Pierside Beach and Boat Launch – operate daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., from May 1 to September 30. The Boat Launch lot operates 24 hours a day.

For 2022, CE Council accepted the committee’s recommendation to add 4.58 acres of space in five lots, generating up to $336,016 in additional revenue, equivalent to two per cent of the 2021 tax levy. The new paid, off-street parking lots are: Little Beach, East Headlands, the Visitor Centre, Erie Rest, and the Pharmacy Lot. Four “courtesy parking spots” will allow 15 minutes of free parking at the Visitor Centre, or at the Pharmacy lot.

Council has also approved spending $125,762 plus taxes for the purchase of 14 new parking meters, including nine to replace the old ones at Main Beach and the Boat Launch lots. They will be installed in May, before the Victoria Day weekend.

“These considerations would align with the October 28, 2019 climate emergency resolution of Council, to identify target areas in municipal policy that can have the greatest impact to reduce local impact on climate change,” according to the committee’s report.

“Generally, it would be beneficial to appreciate and utilize the value parking assets have in realizing other social and environmental objectives,” the committee report continues. “In the 2021 Central Elgin Budget, the net expenditure for the beach is $621,898 funded from the tax levy. The generation of additional parking revenues could be utilized to offset these expenses.”

Morgan Kennedy, past president at the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 410, is concerned the new off-street parking fees to be charged at the Visitor Centre parking lot may hinder attendance at Legion events, and ultimately reduce its ability to support local charities.

“If we don’t make any money, they’re all going to lose money,” said Kennedy, adding that Central Elgin has so far rejected the Legion’s claim that a previous landowner had essentially gifted that space to the Legion for parking. “Pretty soon, the whole downtown will start losing business because there will be paid parking everywhere.

“We’re pretty upset about it,” added Kennedy. “We do banquets and funerals and meat draws and all that. We don’t know where people are going to park. We don’t want to put asphalt for parking in front of the Legion.”

The CE committee and municipal staff seem to have formulated their off-street parking strategy after reading a new paper prepared for the Institute on Municipal Finance and Governance (IMFG), by Almos Tassonyi and Harry Kitchen.

“The strength of a user fee is its capacity to recover all costs of providing a service by linking charges for its use to those who use it,” according to the report by Tassonyi and Kitchen. “This is the classic benefits-received model of public finance – in other words, those who benefit are those who pay, also known as the ‘Wicksellian connection’. When this linkage is achieved, it is possible to satisfy several important criteria in financing public services: efficiency, accountability, transparency, fairness, and ease of administration.”

The costs at the municipal parking lots are $4 per hour, $20 per day, and $30 per day if users have a trailer. A single vehicle season pass costs $100. A season pass for a single vehicle with a boat trailer is $120.

If you don’t pay at the meter, Central Elgin also accepts payments using the free Honk mobile app. The municipality also offers residential overnight parking permits, subject to terms and limitations.

Central Elgin’s website states the municipality charges for off-street parking because “operating and maintaining a large public beach is costly. CE provides lifeguards and washrooms. The beach is raked regularly. Garbage and recycling cans must be emptied. Parking revenue helps fund these services.”

“We’re never going to please everyone,” said Deputy Mayor Marks. “All the things that make Port Stanley so beautiful cost money. This will increase our revenues. We always hear the taxes are too bloody high. By doing this, we’re cutting taxes.

“I’m convinced this isn’t a bad start,” he added. “This will be seasonal. This isn’t every day, and it all stops at 5 p.m.”

Marks said the new strategy targets “seasonal people … who do not pay a cent toward the taxes for Port Stanley.”

A member of the Royal Canadian Legion Branch 41 in St. Thomas, Marks said he empathizes with the Port Stanley Legion. “I went to them and said this was coming,” he said. “I’m going to go to bat for them.”

The new Rates and Fees Bylaw “can be amended once, twice, 20 times if needed,” added Marks. “It’s not etched in stone. It is a living document. If it goes sideways, we can change it.

CE Mayor Sally Martyn did not respond to North Shore Beacon inquiries about the bylaw, however, at Council’s meeting earlier this week she said “local residents will still have seven months where there’s no charge.”