Appeals Court says Falmouth may not charge SSA parking lot fees
In April 2005 the Steamship Authority (SSA) filed a complaint in Dukes County Superior Court against the town of Falmouth to block the Vineyard's mainland port community from imposing new licensing fees and regulations on boatline parking lots.
The SSA won the first round in Superior Court and Falmouth appealed. On Thursday of last week, the state's second highest court upheld the Superior Court decision. Falmouth had maintained that the authority was subject to a state law that required all "persons" in the "business" of operating open-air parking lots to comply with local licensing and fee requirements. But the Appeals Court ruled that the Legislature "does not intend the statute to apply to the Commonwealth or any of its governmental entities," and that such entities don't count as "persons" under the law.
The new licensing regulations were approved at Falmouth's annual town meeting in November 2004 and required each "entity" that operated a parking lot with a capacity in excess of 25 vehicles to obtain a license from the town. Town lots and Cape Cod Regional Transit Authority lots were exempt.
The regulations assessed a charge of $2.50 per parking space per month and included fines of $300 per day per parking space for those who did not comply. At the time, SSA members said it was an illegal tax scheme designed only to raise revenue for the town for general purposes that were not directly related to the parking lots.
At first, the SSA took the view that it was exempt from the new regulations and assumed that the Falmouth selectmen would share that view. They did not.
Both sides met and the SSA asked Falmouth officials to waive any fines while both sides sought a legal opinion. Falmouth was unwilling to do so.
The SSA said that the fees would cost the boatline approximately $66,000 per year and subject its operations to the regulatory oversight of Falmouth fire chief Paul Brodeur, who was also named as a defendant in the original complaint.
In a telephone call Tuesday, SSA general manager Wayne Lamson said the legal fight was lengthy and cost the boatline approximately $120,000 in legal fees, but that it needed to be fought. "We are pleased with the decision of the Appeals Court," Mr. Lamson said. "It is too bad it had to go to this extent but we really had no other choice."
Mr. Lamson said the combination of daily fees and penalties could have cost the boatline millions of dollars.
Mr. Lamson said that prior to the start of the legal battle the SSA provided Falmouth leaders with a copy of a legal opinion that the regulations did not apply to the Steamship Authority. Falmouth officials were unmoved by the opinion he said.
A Falmouth resident, Mr. Lamson said the parking lot regulations are still on the books but as far as he knows they have never been applied to other parking lot owners.
In 2004, the authority's Falmouth parking lots generated approximately $2,895,000 in revenue, money that was used to meet the cost of service on the Vineyard route. Falmouth's effort to charge the boatline for parking spaces came at the same time that a state-ordered 50-cent charge per ferry passenger embarkation fee went into effect, providing Falmouth with more than $300,000 that year alone.