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City taking on rogue valet parking services

Mention valet parking in Little Italy to Justin Duvall, and he'll rattle off stories of valet drivers clogging traffic, parking cars in residential spots and blocking off public spaces with cones.

"I've moved cones before," said Duvall, 29, a lifelong resident of the neighborhood. "If it's not their spot, if the street signs don't say 'No parking,' it's fair game."

In Little Italy, Fells Point and other city neighborhoods where restaurants and clubs commingle with houses and apartments, complaints about valet parking companies have grown common. The City Council now is considering new rules for those firms and, for the first time, making them answerable to the Baltimore City Parking Authority.

"It's so hard when you see certain restaurants taking over entire neighborhoods on certain nights of the week, or every night of the week," saidCouncilmanWilliam H. Cole IV, who represents much of downtown and South Baltimore. "It needs to be regulated."

Cole has introduced legislation that would require city valet companies to apply for a license and file a detailed plan for how their services would operate.

Tony Foreman takes issue with those requirements. Foreman, who co-owns three Harbor East restaurants with valet parking, called the bill "reactionary legislation" that is unneeded and would waste city resources.

"As much as I support the idea of the city trying to do things to be smart about the quality of life of its citizens, I think the city could use its resources a little more intelligently," he said. He says valet parkers that offer poor service won't last, regardless of city involvement.

About 100 valet services operate in the city, according to the parking authority.

The city agency, which supports the bill, now controls where valet services may set up. But it lacks the authority to require them to use off-street parking, carry insurance, prove their employees have valid driver's licenses or show that they follow established traffic patterns.

Tiffany James, special assistant to Parking Authority Director Peter Little, said the bill would give the authority "a little more leverage" over valets, while allowing them to continue to "marry the parking demand with off-street parking supply" — a valuable service, she said.

The legislation would require valet services to carry insurance, identify their off-street parking locations, renew their licenses yearly and meet specific criteria for loading areas, employees and drivers.

Neighborhood leaders say that leverage would help change what they call out-of-control practices.

Joanne Masopust, president of the Fells Point Community Organization, says some operations assume rights to parking spaces in Fells Point, often without the knowledge of the restaurants contracting them.

Council direction

The bill has been co-sponsored by Council President Bernard C. "Jack" Youngand every other council member except North Baltimore's Mary Pat Clarke, who said she is "favorably inclined" but wants to hear from the public.

The bill would give neighbors and community associations a role in determining who receives a license.

It also would establish a $500 fine for first-time violators and a $1,000 fine for each subsequent offense. Cole says the application fee has not yet been determined but would probably be less than $1,000.

Cole says the fees and fines are intended to cover administrative costs, not generate revenue, and are less onerous on businesses than those found in a similar bill introduced in 2008 that never gained momentum.

Young said the bill will help the city deal with unknown, irresponsible valet services "popping up" in residential areas.

Anthony Guglielmi, a police spokesman, said police occasionally get involved in valet issues. He says the department is reviewing the bill.

Neighborhood reaction

Lou Mazzulli, president of the Little Italy Business Association, said restaurants need valet parking, but "that's not supposed to be at the expense of other individuals."

At the same time, he says, the bill should not harm restaurants by making it impossible to run a service.

Foreman, who co-owns Charleston, Cinghiale and Pazo, said he hires and trains his own valet service "perfectly well" without the city's help — and other restaurants and hotels should be able to do the same.

But just a few blocks over, Masopust said, valet services have taken over parking in Fells Point to the point that she won't move her car in the evenings or during weekends for fear of battling for a spot upon her return.

Masopust says she worries the bill might legalize restaurants' ability to claim public parking, but she is hopeful it would improve the parking situation.

"As long as it's regulated and the cars are off the streets, then I think it will be a beneficial thing for the entire area, so we can maintain that balance between commercial and residential," she said.

Jason Curtis, president of the Mount Vernon-Belvedere Association, said the bill is a good idea because valet services are "so unregulated now" that the association's Citizens on Patrol groups often have problems with valets taking public spaces.

Giovanna Blattermann has been arguing for valet regulation for years. Blattermann, a member of the Little Italy Community Organization, says the legislation is long overdue.

"There are absolutely no rules, and because there are no rules, things get done haphazardly, and they affect the people who live here," she said.

One longtime valet service operator welcomed the news of the legislation. Harold McClelland, who has been parking cars for Little Italy restaurants for 19 years, says he pays $2,500 a year to rent a lot at the end of Stiles Street and is fully insured.

He says business has been more difficult in recent years as he competes with startup companies that park cars on the street without insurance and with little overhead.

"I think it'll be great," he said of the bill. "Why? Because there are a lot of mom-and-pop guys out there undercutting me."

krector@baltsun.com

twitter.com/rectorsun

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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