If a street is a public street, the rules for that street should apply to everyone. It seems like a reasonable conclusion about the nature of public property, but reason doesn't seem to apply when it comes to parking on public streets.
The Bel Air town commissioners are in the midst of modifying permit-only parking restrictions on streets near Bel Air High School, raising again the issue of what it means for a street to be a public street. Like many communities across the country, Bel Air has parking meters on streets in and near its business district. People who park but then fail to feed the meter are likely to get tickets in Bel Air, which has a particularly vigilant staff when it comes to parking meter feeding. The rule applies to everyone. Whether a driver is from Main Street in the county seat, or a visitor from Alaska, all must feed the meter or risk having to pay a ticket. In other words, all members of the public are treated equally.
On streets elsewhere in Bel Air – and, to be fair, in other communities – the parking regulations in effect give to residents a measure of ownership interest in public streets as long as those people live in houses on those streets. People who live on streets, for example, in the neighborhoods around Shamrock Park are given permits for their cars and allowed to park on, for example, McCormick Street.
The argument that has carried the day on this issue in town is that the demand for parking for people obliged to be in town on public business in one of the courts or county offices is so great as to potentially take up too many spaces in residential areas during business hours.
The issue in the neighborhoods near Bel Air High School is a case in point. Prior to the opening of the new Bel Air High four years ago, the student parking lot at the school was a good deal smaller and many students would drive to school and park on streets in those neighborhoods.
Subsequently, that practice was essentially outlawed by requiring permits for anyone who wanted to park on a street near the school between 7:30 a.m. and 5 p.m. The situation at Bel Air High School has changed because the new school has more parking spaces, so the fear of students taking up spots along streets in town has diminished, prompting discussions about whether to do away with the permit-only restrictions around the school.
Permit-only restrictions should be eliminated throughout town. Bel Air does have parking problems, especially compared to Aberdeen, Havre de Grace and other communities in Harford County. It remains to be seen, however, to what degree those parking problems are self-inflicted, or even manufactured.
Bel Air is the county seat and a lot of people who don't live in town end up driving there to work, or for official public business of one kind or another. On the whole, the county and state government offices have made provisions for their employees with staff-only lots and by securing spaces in the town parking garage at the corner of Hickory and Pennsylvania avenues.
To a large degree, the people looking for on-street parking in Bel Air are either on public business or potential shoppers. It's perfectly reasonable for them to expect to be able to park on any public street in town, without a special permit because that's what public ownership means.
Bel Air's parks aren't restricted to town residents, nor do its police investigate traffic accidents only when they involve town residents. Plenty of people are acutely aware that town police don't give tickets for moving violations only to town residents. Moreover, the speed limit isn't different for people who live in town, so why should parking rules be different?
On public streets, the same rules should apply to all members of the general public. If the town wants to restrict parking during the day to keep residential streets clear of visitors parking, that's fine, but the no parking restriction needs to apply to everyone.
Bel Air would do well to abandon the notion of permit-only parking restrictions throughout town, not just near Bel Air High School.