Construction began this week on parking changes in historic Ellicott City, even as some merchants and residents remain divided on its usefulness.
The county government projects will convert 101 free parking spaces along Main Street and Maryland Avenue to metered spaces and install a new sensor-based parking system throughout downtown that uses a downloadable smart phone application to notify drivers of vacant parking spaces.
The projects will cost an estimated $350,000, according the county Department of Planning and Zoning, which is coordinating the changes.
In addition to increasing the number of metered spots to approximately 240 spaces, the county is raising the rates in lots D and E from 25 cents and hour to 50 cents, according to Steve Lafferty of the planning department.
The spaces along Main Street and Maryland Avenue will charge $1 per hour and be regulated by multi-meters similar to those found in Fells Point and Annapolis, Lafferty said. The two-hour parking limit and the hours of enforcement on both streets will remain unchanged.
About 350 free parking spaces will remain in downtown Ellicott City.
The projects are expected to be completed by the second week in November, Lafferty said, but fee changes will not go into effect until Jan. 1, 2013. Lafferty said he expects the sensor system to be operational by the holiday season.
Lafferty said the goal of the projects is to increase turnover and dispel the myth that there is not enough parking in downtown Ellicott City.
"After the results of (a study) three years ago, we became convinced that we need to break down this misconception about parking," Lafferty said.
Sarah Arditti, owner of Still Life Fine Art Gallery, said she's been leading the opposition against the implementation of the two projects.
Arditti, whose business is located on Main Street, believes that increasing the parking meters will deter customers and burden merchants, and categorized the sensor-system as a massive waste of funding.
"We feel the parking on Main Street is going to drive customers away," Arditti said. "Anything you do that causes annoyance or inconvenience for customers is bad for business."
Lafferty said studies indicate that adding metered parking along the street does not act as a deterrent, as long as there is something else that has otherwise attracted shoppers to the area.
"Downtown Ellicott City is not the mall," Lafferty said. "They have very unique and interesting businesses. You don't go to the mall to find Ellicott's Country Store or Sweet Elizabeth Jane. That is the unique element about Ellicott City people are missing. It's the same element that brings people down there."
Although Arditti is against metered parking, she said her biggest complaint is that the county made the changes without informing all the businesses and residents.
"The main reason I'm opposed is because there was very little input from the business owners," Arditti said. "There are still some businesses and residents that don't know, and it shouldn't be that way."
Lafferty said the county informed the Ellicott City Business Association (ECBA), which consists of more than 40 businesses, of the changes as they were developing, but admitted reaching more businesses would have been preferable.
"We probably needed to bring in more people if only to demonstrate the value to a broader base," Lafferty said.
ECBA President David Carney, owner of the Wine Bin, said the organization has not taken an official stance on the issue.
Carney added that he is personally in favor of the change, but said he petitioned and lobbied county officials to make an adjustments after residents and customers expressed concerns about the changes.
Lafferty said that in response the county has implemented a 15-minute grace period for people who want to grab a cup of coffee or run a quick errand in downtown.
Lafferty added that the county has scheduled a meeting with residents of historic Ellicott City on Monday, Oct. 29 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Paul's Church. One idea Lafferty expects to hear about is a resident-only parking permit for downtown.
"If you have a legitimate complaint, the county will listen to you," Carney said.