This year might be the last for free parking at Westminster meters during the holidays -- a tradition the past two decades -- because of concerns that the downtown promotional effort is being misused by workers.
Mayor Kenneth A. Yowan said he wouldn't recommend changes this season, but said the Common Council should consider keeping meter use in effect or waiving permits between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day next year.
"I think we're probably going to have to do something different. It's not working as it's intended to work. A small number of people are hurting it for everyone," he said.
A Westminster woman's recent frustration trying to find a parking space at the city's Longwell Lot illustrates the problem.
Carol Head, a secretary at Westminster East Middle School, circled the parking lot five times in a futile quest for a parking space one day last week. She decided to do something about it.
She received permission from the owners of Kountry Kafe and Katering, where she meets her husband daily for lunch, to post a notice encouraging similarly frustrated customers to call City Hall.
She used her frustration to turn a spotlight on a problem that city officials and merchants have been unable to resolve through the 1990s: free holiday parking isn't working as intended.
Head surmised that employees of downtown offices and businesses, who usually park in permit spaces at the rear of the lot, are using the free-meter spaces closer to Main Street. She said she sees vacant permit spaces while metered areas are filled.
Her conclusion draws no disagreement from other observers.
"It's hurting their business instead of helping," Head said. "I'd rather pay the parking meter than have to fight a losing battle just to get a place to park."
City officials said they had received about eight calls since Head posted her notice.
Thomas B. Beyard, city planning and public works director, said callers he spoke to "felt that during the year, when the meters are in effect, parking is better" for customers.
Policy to stay this year
He said he wouldn't recommend any changes during the free parking period, which ends Jan. 2, but, "some future action might be appropriate. We need broader input before we make a major change."
Sandy Scott, president of Westminster Business Association, said city government hasn't been receptive to publicizing the free parking with, for example, bags over the meters.
The result is, "People don't know about it, but all the employees know and they say, 'Oh, good, we don't have to pay to park this month,' " she said.
Scott said many cars parked at meters probably belong to downtown employees, but she didn't know how employers could stop the practice. Some business owners park at meters in front of their stores despite repeated suggestions that those spaces should be freed for customers, she said.
"Maybe if they just canned [free holiday parking], there would be more parking for people," Scott said.
Permit waiver suggested
Alternatively, if the city waived parking permits for the holiday, it would open all of the Longwell Lot to customer parking, she said.
Yowan said he didn't recall details of a discussion on meter bags several years ago.
"But that wouldn't help the problem we're talking about. We'd still have the same problem, except that we'd have bags we'd have to put on and replace," he said.
Yowan said allowing free holiday parking benefits only daytime shoppers, because meters are free after 3 p.m. throughout the year.
Police Lt. Randy Barnes said permit sales are not down for December, but permit holders may be choosing metered spaces instead of their designated spots.
Pub Date: 12/10/98