I swore I would never write about parking in Camden. It’s just not an issue where I feel I have anything special or unique to add and it feels like a no win topic everyone complains about no matter what. But, as far as I can tell, Camden residents have a fair amount of bandwidth for the topic and a relatively high level of interest, so I feel obliged to share a little of what I know and alert you to some changes.

The town will soon embark on an experiment in paid parking on the Public Landing. Studying the idea of paid parking in Camden began about a decade after the first mentions of the “parking problem” surfaced in the Camden Herald back in the 1940s. Since then, any number of possible solutions have been discussed but only a few of them ever explored.

Twenty-two years ago, the Camden Select Board was criticized by the editors of the Camden Herald for failure to move forward with an experiment in paid parking on the Public Landing between the months of May to October. The proposal came as the result of many years of hard work on the part of the town’s parking/transportation/traffic committee and the Camden Herald editorial reached the same conclusion countless committees and professionals arrived at over decades of studying the problem.

To some, it’s a solution in search of a problem. I myself rarely have any problem parking my car in Camden (a bicycle is a different story), but that’s because I have a lifetime of practice efficiently circling the blocks in just the right pattern, building on tricks I learned from my parents, friends and neighbors, and I’ve worked in downtown restaurants enough to have perfected the two hour car shuffle. We used to take turns moving each other’s cars.

The Public Landing lot with a bike rack squished in where there is no room for it. Photo by Alison McKellar.

As with anything, learning more about something can mean you think differently about it, and I’ve now learned so much about parking in Camden — and perhaps more importantly, the history of talking about parking in Camden — that it’s quite clear we do have a problem. The problem, however, is not restricted to parking, which may be a mere symptom of a larger issue that is pervasive in Camden: Chronic “analysis paralysis,” a condition where issues are studied to the point the group becomes paralyzed by options and fails to move forward with any action at all. It’s a variation of the well known phenomenon of “death by committee” known for stalling a project in a type of spin cycle driven by well meaning but endless nit-picking in a group setting.

If you search the Camden Herald for “Camden parking” or “parking problem” you will see hundreds, even thousands, of entries stretching over 80 years. The shelves and filing cabinets in the Town Office paint a similar picture with countless files referring to various committee recommendations, all painstakingly researched. I’ve received multiple messages from Camden residents who verify the reports, saying they served on various iterations of one committee or another that studied the Camden parking problem.

A pattern emerges where the issue of parking is subjected to extensive studying by citizen committees and professional consultants and a solution is recommended, which has always been some form of paid parking management system in concert with enforcement and incentives. Invariably, even when committee recommendations are unanimous and well researched, any plan that has included paid parking has ended up on a shelf after a relatively small but emotional group of people show up to plead their case before the Select Board. They refer to the character of the town, the failure to study other more viable options, and the unfairness to Camden residents who already pay taxes.

Camden Herald editorial page from Dec. 7,, 2000.

But paid parking isn’t the only solution that has been shot down by a small but angry mob showing up and, as one former committee member put it, “scaring the bejeezus” out of elected officials.

One year, the Chamber of Commerce developed a public transportation plan to buy a trolley and finance its operation from satellite parking lots to downtown locations throughout Midcoast towns. Even though the town wasn’t going to pay for any of it, a group of residents objected to the “Disney World” quality of the plan and insisted no such system should even be tried in Camden. Little did these naysayers know Camden once had a thriving trolley that made trips between Camden, Rockport, and Rockland on a regular schedule.

Reading reports and the occasional article online, I’ve learned our problem-free (for me) parking system actually comes at quite a high cost to taxpayers who must pay for enforcement, paving, maintenance, plowing, and more on town lots and street side parking. We also pay in missed opportunities when we reserve public space for parking cars rather than some other purpose. Despite frequent requests for everything from more bike racks, to drinking fountains, to picnic tables, to park benches, the Public Landing is suffocated by parking spots.

Study after study found many of these prime parking spots are used by people for all day parking rather than tourists and residents spending a couple hours shopping.

Free parking for cars and a system that relies on time limits, a parking officer, and tire chalk, is difficult and costly to enforce and it’s almost impossible to stop people who are determined to move their cars every two hours rather than parking in one of the free all day lots behind the Knox Mill or adjacent to the Fire Station. In 2000, the committee estimated paid parking on the Public Landing alone could raise about $40,000 in revenue. Many residents and visitors report they would rather pay for a spot than drive around town in circles for twenty minutes looking for one. For some, the cost of a couple dollars an hour will be just enough to encourage parking a little further away and that will free up spaces for others.

No matter what happens, the changes are an experiment and it is a time for collecting feedback and seeing what works and what doesn’t. Even if you are philosophically, spiritually, and practically opposed to paying for parking in Camden in any form other than your taxes, I hope we can all see this as an opportunity to stop sitting around and talking exclusively in hypotheticals. Those with all viewpoints will soon have something tangible to point to in terms of the impact on the town.

At some point, we have to be brave enough to try out the solutions proposed by highly qualified and diligent citizen committees, especially when they are working well in other places. Camden is attracting more and more people all the time and parking is a scarce and valuable resource. How do we allocate it fairly and for the greatest common good?

For those who are interested in learning more, consider the book “The High Cost of Free Parking” by Donald Shoup or just google a video or shorter article on the topic. The town website has information about the most recent parking committee and the study that was completed in April of 2022.

Alison McKellar is a Camden resident and Select Board Vice-Chair. Her views are her own and do not reflect those of the Select Board or the editorial position of The Camden Herald. We welcome letters and guest columns reflecting other viewpoints via editor@villagesoup.com.

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