New Bedford Mayor Jon Mitchell said Wednesday that the decision to implement a pay-to-park program in the lot that serves Noah’s Place, the city’s handicapped-accessible playground, is not designed as a way to profit off families with disabled children, but rather a way to protect their ability to use the playground, the only one of its kind in the area.

“There’s a lot of parking pressure there,” he said in his weekly segment on WBSM. “The reason that the Traffic Division and the Parks Department and the Port Authority have moved forward with this is to preserve the ability of people to park at the playground, reasonably, without getting crowded out by others, which is inevitably going to happen. The status quo there is untenable.”

Mitchell said the decision was made to institute the pay-to-park program, which would run from April 15 until October 31, because of increased use of the lot during that time.

“There has been a general concern of late, growing and intensifying, that people are being crowded out of that playground. If they’re not already, they will be in the high season,” Mitchell said. “So as much as people’s first reaction is ‘wait a minute, you have to pay to park there, how can you do that,’ the motivation by the Park Department, the Port Authority and the Traffic Division is quite the opposite. It is to preserve the availability of those spaces.”

According to Mitchell, there are 196 slips at the Pope’s Island Marina, but only 172 parking spaces in the parking lot, which serves not only the Pope’s Island Marina but also Fleet Marina, in the former Captain Leroy’s location. He said that business is being built out to include both commercial and recreational vessels.

“That has put a great deal of pressure on a parking lot that is already too small,” he said.

Mitchell also said there is a new challenge to parking at Marine Park that began last summer, and it’s something he thinks is likely to continue.

“Ferry goers to Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket have started to park there,” he said. “They parked there a lot last summer instead of paying the $15 a day it costs at the Whale’s Tooth (parking lot). Why pay 15 bucks when you can go to a lot that’s about the same distance to the ferry for free? So we’ve seen it, folks have seen it.”

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The new parking program would call for those using the lot to pay $3 per hour, or a maximum of $15 per day, for parking. Those utilizing Noah’s Place would receive two hours of free parking before being charged, while any vehicle with a handicapped placard or plate would be exempt from paying any fees, per state law.

Victor Fernandes, founder of Team Noah and the person who spearheaded the effort to raise the $2 million in private donations to build the playground, said he was of the understanding that families utilizing spaces for Noah’s Place would be given three or four hours of free parking. He and others have said that two hours isn’t enough time for families with disabled children, considering the challenges of getting children in and out of their vehicles.

With that and other factors in mind, Mitchell said he has asked the three bodies involved in the decision to give it another look.

“Is there anything you can improve upon? Time of day, season – they’re going to go back and take a look at that. I’ve asked them to take that up, so they’ll go back and see if this policy can be improved.”

“They will go back and look to see what makes sense. Does it make sense to lengthen the time? Does it make sense to shorten the season? Does it make sense to have a placard for children that are eligible, that are New Bedford residents, so that they can be there for an unlimited period of time? Maybe that’s a question. These are all things they can go back and consider,” Mitchell said. “If somebody’s arguing for the status quo, be careful what you wish for. If there’s no signage, or no rules or anything, people aren’t going to get access to the playground. There aren’t enough parking spaces there.”

One thing Mitchell took exception to, though, is the way he felt callers into WBSM and those sounding off on the issue have talked about those who put the parking plan into place.

“They work really hard to figure this stuff out, and if it’s not perfect, they can go back and fix it. But what I’ve been hearing on the air is people calling folks in the Parks Department ‘stupid,’ and ‘they don’t like handicapped children’ and all kinds of stuff like that, and I just ask people – does that make sense to you?” Mitchell said. “If the same park board that worked to approve Noah's Place in the first place, it’s essentially the same group and the same park director who have worked really hard to make sure that thing is a success, and they voted unanimously to allow this to happen. Do you really think they hate handicapped kids? Just think about that.”

That idea is part of why Port Authority Director Justin Poulen issued a statement Tuesday evening.

“The children and families who use the Noah’s Place playground have always been given front and center consideration in the work to formulate a new parking policy at Marine Park, especially families with children with disabilities,” he wrote. “To suggest otherwise is to ignore the many efforts undertaken over the past several months to engage supporters of Noah’s Place, refine the parking approach based on their feedback, and ensure that these children and families are not unfairly burdened.”

Mitchell echoed the sentiment that careful thought went into this pay-to-park program, while also saying there is room for improvement if it doesn’t work as constituted.

“Does it make sense that these people have ill motives or are lazy or stupid and they just did this thing? No. Can they improve this policy? Sure, and that’s what I’ve brought up. Fix this policy, make it better, but know that doing nothing doesn’t work,” he said. “Doing nothing right now to that whole site will result in fewer kids using that playground. Period.”

On Tuesday, At-Large City Councilor Brian Gomes called into WBSM to share concerns he was hearing from marina users in addition to the concerns about parking for Noah’s Place.

“All the boat slip people who have already paid their $4,000 for the summer or whatever are now receiving notice that they will have to pay for parking,” Gomes said. “I’m hearing from people who have a slip down there, they are presently trying to get some signatures, I heard from them yesterday asking for assistance. They now think they are being hoodwinked after paying a leasing fee to receive another bill for parking.”

A change.org petition has already amassed over 300 signatures as of this writing to oppose the parking fees being implemented on boaters and to ask for upgrades to the conditions at the marina. Mitchell dispelled the notion that marina owners were going to pay more for parking.

“Did they get a bill? Did anybody get a bill? It’s a rhetorical question, the answer is no,” he said, noting that it’s his understanding that all slip rentals will include one parking pass. “It’s going to be baked into the dockage fees, which are among the cheapest anywhere in Southern New England.”

Mitchell did agree, however, that there needs to be upgrades made to the marina, but that the City’s hands are tied because it doesn’t own the piers.

“The building is owned by the City and maintained by the Port Authority. The piers themselves, which I agree are in lousy shape, are owned by the state Department of Conservation and Recreation,” he said. “We have been trying for years to get them to turn it over to the City because it needs to be reublit. I totally agree with them on that point, but it’s not our pier.”

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