BIDDEFORD — Business owners and residents turned out in force Monday night to push back against a new downtown parking plan that requires people to pay to park in municipal lots.

During a community meeting that at times grew testy, people opposed to the City Council-approved plan said charging users to park in downtown lots and eliminating overnight parking on Main Street will hurt their businesses and force low-income residents out of the area. They also called for a referendum on the plan, which was approved by the council this fall and goes into effect Dec. 1.

Biddeford city officials, however, maintain that the plan is needed to balance the competing demands for a finite number of parking spots and stimulate business at a time the city is experiencing a surge of redevelopment activity downtown.

“Changing the status quo is always going to be uncomfortable,” said Councilor Amy Clearwater, who represents the downtown ward.

Councilor Norman Belanger, who moderated the meeting attended by about 150 people, said the new parking plan was designed to address a parking shortage in the city and free up spots on the street for people who are visiting. Many of those spots are currently used by people who work downtown, although many employees also park in municipal lots.

The council scheduled Monday’s meeting to address both confusion about the changes and concern from residents and business owners. The majority of the more than 15 people who spoke at the meeting were critical of the changes.

“This is important. This is our livelihoods,” said Matt Swaford, a small-business owner who fears the plan will negatively affect his business. “It’s gambling with our livelihoods and that is not OK.”

Under the new plan, there are eight city-owned lots in or near the downtown where residents can park with permits, which can be purchased on a short-term basis for $2 an hour. Long-term permits cost $20 a month for night parking, $30 a month for day parking or $40 a month for day and night.

The existing parking supply in the combined Mill District/downtown area includes 419 municipal parking lot spaces – some of which will remain free – 1,705 private lot spaces and 765 on-street spaces – a total of 2,889 spaces, according to the city.

Officials also say the plan is consistent with the results of a 2014 referendum that prohibited parking meters on downtown streets.

“No parking meters doesn’t mean no paid parking downtown,” Belanger said to boos from the audience.

Resident Jason Litalien, who spoke at the meeting, believes the city is violating the referendum results and has filed motions in York County Superior Court to try to stop the city from moving forward with the plan. His first motion filed last month for a temporary restraining order was denied, but he has since filed for a preliminary injunction.

Residents also raised concern about the gentrification of the city and the way that will impact residents.

Resident Samantha Levesque questioned how the paid parking plan will affect both struggling businesses and low-income residents who can’t afford permits but need cars to get to work.

“This is really, really scary,” she said.

Belanger said the council “has no desire to make downtown businesses go away” and pointed out residents can continue to park for free on side streets.

“There are people who believe this plan will make downtown a ghost town. … I don’t believe that is going to happen,” he said.

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