Historic Ellicott City's effort to break its parking gridlock appears to be working -- maybe a little too well.
Less than two weeks after Howard County began phasing in the much-talked-about effort, nearly 50 merchants have signed petition asking the county Planning and Zoning Department to lengthen the time restriction for much of Main Street from one hour to two hours.
The request is part of the merchants' goal to ward off what they call a "ghost town feel" that many say has afflicted the quaint former mill town's commercial district since a private parking firm began ticketing errant parkers on July 26.
"Some people come in and ask 'Are the shops open today?' " complained Don Randle, who owns a gift shop on Main Street.
His wife, Jan, added: "A deserted street doesn't create a bustling feeling. It means not many people are shopping."
To ease the pain for customers who have been ticketed, merchants even are reimbursing them the $14 fine, and some are planning to pass out quarters that customers can use to feed the meters, which are being phased in starting today.
Framing shop owner David Quattlebaum is one of those who has taken drastic steps to make sure customers are not driven away by ticket-writers. Last week, he gave cash to a regular customer who got a ticket.
"He was very irate because he didn't realize it was one-hour parking," Quattlebaum said. "Everyone feels this entire street should be two hours."
But Marsha McLaughlin, deputy director of the county Planning and Zoning Department, said the time limits on Main Street will not be changed -- at least not until the entire parking plan is implemented.
"Until we have the whole system functioning, the sentiment is to not leap and change the time limits," said McLaughlin, whose office coordinated the parking plan with merchants. "Two years ago, there was a debate about one hour vs. two hours, and we ended up with a split. The feeling was to test the one-hour first."
She noted that meters in one of the district's seven parking lots will be installed and enforced today. But, meters won't be installed in three other parking lots until later this month, she said.
"The town does look different, but I think the jury is still out on tinkering" with the parking plan, she said. "It's too new for anyone to be sure how they feel about it."
The plan's intent, local officials say, is to give tourists a fair shot at convenient spaces often taken by merchants and their employees.
Devised over a two-year period, the plan calls for time restrictions on Main Street and parking meters in the most convenient parking lots. The Virginia-based J. L. Associates was hired for $85,000 to enforce the plan.
On a recent visit to the district, the time restrictions appeared to be effective. A number of parking spaces along Main Street were available during the lunch hour, the prime time for traffic.
Despite the plan's apparent success, however, Randle, the gift store owner, said the regulations aren't customer-friendly.
Last week, he began surveying his customers informally to gauge their opinions on the parking plan. Of two dozen respondents, only one was positive.
"I hate seeing people visiting from other places getting nailed [with tickets]," Randle said. "They're just being chased out of town."
Mary Flaherty, a Catonsville resident and frequent district shopper, agreed. "This is a browsing town. Why ruin it and send people back to the malls?" she asked. "It's against the character of the town to have one-hour parking. When I go to Ellicott City, it's for the day. I don't want to be worried about my car."
Bridget Martin, of Ellicott City, said she can't walk up one side of Main Street in one hour. "I do a lot of window shopping. There's no way one hour is enough," she said.
But Sherry Fackler-Berkowitz, who owns a stained-glass shop and drafted the petition to change the time limits, said she is FTC willing to endure the one-hour limit for a while. "It would be best for merchants to encourage their customers that this is for the best," said Fackler-Berkowitz. She said the plan appears to be effective, adding, "I've been here 17 years and this is the first time there has been parking on Main Street."
Pub Date: 8/06/96