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3-2 vote pushes Ucluelet towards pay parking

Ucluelet looks likely to join Tofino in charging tourists for spots.
Tourists can expect to begin paying to park in Ucluelet next year as the town plans to bring in parking fees.

The West Coast is heading towards parallel pay parking programs as Ucluelet looks likely to join Tofino in charging tourists for spots.

Ucluelet’s council seems to be taking a more neighbourly approach to their fees though and plans to allow all West Coast residents to park for free, while Tofino charges fees to anyone living east of the junction, including Ucluelet and Hitacu.

During their June 11 regular meeting, Ukee’s council voted 3-2 in favour of directing their staff to move ahead with implementing a pay parking program.

District CAO Duane Lawrence had first presented the idea for pay parking during an Oct. 25 council meeting and council had expressed enough interest in the idea for staff to take a deeper dive.

A report presented by Lawrence on June 11 suggested the initial parameters stemming from council’s October conversation included Ucluelet residents being exempt from fees and residents of neighbouring West Coast communities, like Tofino, either being exempt or charged an administrative cost-recovery fee.

Lawrence said that parking fees should not be expected to roll out until 2025.

The program being proposed would involve a flat, $10 daily rate for all vehicle types on all district roads and parking lots, rather than charging per hour.

To gauge public interest in parking fees, the district circulated an online survey earlier this year that received 581 responses, 453 from people identifying as Ucluelet residents, 65 from West Coast residents outside of Ucluelet and 63 responses from people outside the region.

“We had a very, very good turnout on that survey,” Lawrence said. “It was a very good response for a survey and it definitely provides council with an idea of some of the concerns and variety of support for a parking program.”

He noted the survey’s results were split with 51 per cent of respondents ticking the ‘Not supportive’ box and 49 per cent landing somewhere on the supportive spectrum with 13 per cent ticking ‘Somewhat supportive,’ 16 per cent ticking ‘Supportive’ and 20 per cent ticking ‘Very supportive.’

Concerns from non-supportive respondents included objections to Ucluelet residents having to pay to park, creating an unwelcoming vibe for tourists by charging them to park and potential impacts on downtown businesses.

People in the ‘somewhat supportive’ camp, raised concerns around Tofino residents being exempt from fees while Ucluelet residents have to pay to park in Tofino, potentially overcrowding private parking spots as tourists seek free spaces and how the revenue generated would be spent.

Lawrence said a request for proposals sent out by the district looking for help implementing a pay parking program attracted four vastly different responses and further investigation would be needed to parse out which company to work with.

He added that if council went ahead with parking fees, bylaw updates and communications strategies would be required and equipment would need to be ordered and installed.

“This is an opportunity to generate income to try to offset some of the costs tourism puts on local infrastructure,” Lawrence said.

He suggested parking fee revenue would not lead to a reduction of the town’s current tax rate, but could help reduce future tax increases.

“Without additional revenue sources, which we have very limited access to, we’re unfortunately very reliant on a limited number of opportunities: grants, which are unstable because you never know if you’re going to get them and then property taxes, which we all know is a significant burden on residential residences in the community and more so in tourist destinations,” he said.

Mayor Marilyn McEwen had been in favour of parking fees during Oct. 25’s council discussion, but said her mind had changed since then.

“I have to admit, I’ve done a bit of a flip flop on this topic,” she said. “I was really in favour of looking at a parking program because it’s one of the few ways a municipality can generate some income from the tourists that we can use any way we like.”

She suggested the roughly 50-50 split in the survey was “not exactly encouraging,” adding she found it difficult to compare the four proposals the district received from pay parking operators because of their significant differences.

“They’re really just all over the map,” she said.

She added a key reason for her switch in opinion was that she’s been visiting Tofino more often lately and has struggled to find parking.

Coun. Ian Kennington noted comments made by some of the ‘Not supportive’ survey respondents were incorrect, particularly those who objected to residents being charged fees when the plan is for them to park for free.

Lawrence said there were a number of responses objecting to locals being charged, but added those were not separated from the overall survey results.

“We didn’t dive down that deep in determining whether or not individual responses were appropriate,” he said, adding council had not yet endorsed the program’s parameters.

“We don’t have a resolution saying ‘Thou shall not charge residents…with the parking fees at this point in time,’ although that was the intent of the original proposal that residents and West Coast residents should not be burdened with paying for parking in their community and that this was specific to visitors.”

Coun. Mark Maftei said he would vote against pay parking in Ucluelet, but added he understood the argument that parking fees would generate revenue from tourists.

“Fair enough. At that point, logically, we should maximize the revenue that we generate…We should charge as much as we possibly could for parking. It would be tempting to take that to an extreme, at which point people are going to say, ‘OK, well we’re not going to come here anymore’ and then you almost use it as a tool not just to regulate visitation, but also to maximize revenue,” he said.

“Personally, I’m against it and I would vote against moving forward with it, but I do see merit and I do see value. If council decides to move forward with it, at that point I would start to argue that we should push this to its logical limit. If this is what we want, then let’s really do it…Let’s implement the program in such a way that the focus of the program is how much money can we possibly generate through it.”

Kennington recalled a conversation he had with Tofino’s mayor Dan Law who stated, “There’s no such thing as free parking.”

“All parking is pay parking because of wear and tear on the infrastructure. The question really is, who’s paying for that pay parking? If we don’t want tourists to pay for it, then we have to pay for it. At the end of the day, it’s not just lost revenue; it’s taxes that we’re going to have to collect,” Kennington said.

Coun. Jennifer Hoar agreed.

“Either we pay for it, the residents, or we find a way for the tourists to pay for a little bit of the stuff that they are already using,” she said. “We are a small taxbase; welcome to all our increased tax bills. We don’t have spare revenue.”

She said she wasn’t sure she liked Maftei’s “go big or go home” suggestion, but added that she rarely finds free parking in other towns and supported bringing fees to Ucluelet.

Hoar also agreed with Kennington’s point that many of the ‘Not supportive’ surveys seemed moot because of their objections to residents being charged.

“I read every single response, there are a significant number who didn’t realize that we weren’t planning to charge locals,” she said.

Coun. Shawn Anderson said he shared local concerns around businesses potentially losing customers who don’t want to pay to park outside their stores, but added that those businesses are also facing higher taxes that alternative revenue streams could help ease.

“My ultimate fear is that a small business is going to feel the pinch,” he said. “That’s what I’m worried about the most. But, at the same time, I’ve talked to some small business owners that got their tax bill and they’re just horrified…The promise has to be that we use those funds appropriately. We’re not going to build a monorail.”

A member of the audience pointed out that Tofino’s downtown pay parking program had lost money in its first year last year and questioned whether Ucluelet could see the same financial misfire.

Kennington countered that while Tofino’s downtown pay parking program had lost money, its overall program generated revenue thanks to its beach parking fees.

District CAO Lawrence suggested Tofino made “over $700,000” in pay parking revenue in 2023.

“The program in Tofino is definitely a significant revenue generator,” Lawrence said.

A report during Tofino council’s Feb. 15 regular meeting laid out that Tofino’s overall parking program brought in $269,580 in 2023.

Tofino’s beach pay parking program generated $667,637 in 2023 with $370,255 in expenses for a net profit of $297,381. The new downtown parking program brought in $133,879 in its first year, but $161,680 in expenses led to a net loss of $27,801.

Lawrence said Ucluelet’s staff would work to ensure the community’s taxpayers don’t pay to implement a program that becomes a financial burden to the community.

Anderson acknowledged there is a risk the program could lose money and an upfront investment would be needed before revenue is proven.

“If we’re wrong and we did it, then it might take a while before we even know because we have to make that investment and then we have to let that pay itself off,” he said. “When we’re in, we’re in.”

He reiterated tax increases are painful and alternative revenue is needed to help ease further hikes.

“When we look at the finances in town, it’s scary. Our taxbase isn’t huge and the idea of having input from tourists to help us with things that we just can’t afford, like infrastructure, makes sense,” he said.

“I have to think about residents first. I have to think about kids growing up here…I know tourism is incredibly important, but my heart in this one comes from a residents-first attitude and making sure that people here have adequate infrastructure and the tourists pay their part.”

Anderson, Hoar and Kennington voted in favour of directing staff to proceed with implementing pay parking, outnumbering opposition votes from Maftei and McEwen.

Andrew Bailey

About the Author: Andrew Bailey

I arrived at the Westerly News as a reporter and photographer in January 2012.
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