By Miranda S. Spivack
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, July 11, 2007
Montgomery County is backing off a plan to raise parking rates in several communities after officials received hundreds of complaints that the increases could discourage nightlife and kill off small businesses, especially in sections of Silver Spring and Wheaton.
County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) told County Council members yesterday that they should scrap the plans, which would increase parking fees and lengthen the hours for paid parking in several parts of the county, including Bethesda and White Flint. The new fees and hours were to take effect July 1, but Leggett's administration delayed them when opposition arose.
Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) introduced a bill yesterday to repeal all the increases and immediately won support from at least three other members. A hearing on the bill is set for July 26, and a vote is likely by July 31.
Only two months ago, the council unanimously approved the plans, and Leggett signed them into law as part of an overall $2 billion county budget.
One of the goals of the new policy was to make county-run parking more uniform and to bring in as much as $700,000 annually to help offset the millions the county has spent in Silver Spring and Wheaton.
But business owners said the parking-rate increases could set back their progress.
"We are in the infancy of this revitalization," said Jackie Greenbaum, who owns Jackie's Restaurant in south Silver Spring near the D.C. line. "Silver Spring is not Bethesda. We don't have the affluence yet or the rock-solid business community. It would not take much in our view to knock it back five years."
The county's parking fees are, pardon the pun, all over the lot. Drivers pay at Wheaton's public surface lots on Saturdays, but not at Bethesda's. They pay for on-street parking in downtown Bethesda on Saturdays, but not in downtown Silver Spring. After 7 p.m. on weekdays, the only place that charges for on-street parking is Bethesda.
Under the new policy, parking at all nine public surface lots in Bethesda, which has been free on Saturdays, would be metered from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday, including the popular lots near Barnes & Noble and the Capital Crescent Trail. Most of Bethesda's parking spaces -- more than 70 percent -- are in its eight public garages, which would remain free on weekends.
In Silver Spring and Wheaton, metered parking on the streets and in lots would be extended until 10 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays. In North Bethesda, near White Flint mall and the Metro stations, monthly and hourly parking rates would increase. Parking is free throughout the county on Sundays and holidays.
Greenbaum wrote a letter to the council complaining about the changes, which, despite a public hearing, seemed to sneak up on the public and the council members.
"This law assumes Silver Spring has already 'made it.' This is far from true. Many businesses . . . away from the town center are struggling and need the county's support," said the letter, which more than 500 people signed.
John R. Landis, co-owner of Crisfield's Seafood Restaurant, a 62-year-old family-owned business in Silver Spring, said he was unaware of the changes in parking fees until after they were approved. "Somehow, there was no input from the citizens," he said.
Leggett, who had long opposed the parking-rate increases for Silver Spring when he was a council member, said yesterday that the new policy escaped his attention at budget time.
Council staff members estimated the new fees could bring in $600,000 to $700,000 annually.
In May, when the council was examining the proposal crafted by deputy staff director Glenn Orlin, there was little opposition, except from the Bethesda-Chevy Chase Chamber of Commerce, at a sparsely attended public hearing. Word began to filter out to businesses and residents after the council approved the budget and Leggett signed it.
"I began to realize that some of this was really unfair," said Ervin, a member of council's transportation committee, which first vetted the policy.
The inequity was particularly worrisome in south Silver Spring, where patrons would pay for on-street parking until 10 p.m., except on Sundays. The city center, though, would still offer free evening parking in garages, which could lure diners and shoppers away from south Silver Spring, business owners said. On-street meters in Wheaton would also have been extended until 10 p.m.
Leggett, who commented on the parking plan during his monthly breakfast with the council yesterday, said he was partly responsible for allowing it to become law.
He said he would have protested sooner but did not realize that Silver Spring had been included. His original budget had expanded parking hours in Wheaton and in a small lot north of downtown Silver Spring to 10 p.m. but had not proposed any changes for downtown Silver Spring, Bethesda or White Flint.
Ervin said she barely remembers any discussion about the staff-generated plan before the council approved the budget.
"There is really only one supporter of the parking fees in the room, and that is staff," said council member George L. Leventhal (D-At Large).