Council Repeals Parking Increase
Wednesday, August 1, 2007
The Montgomery County Council unanimously repealed a widely unpopular measure yesterday to raise parking fees and lengthen paid parking hours in Silver Spring, Wheaton, Bethesda and other communities.
The plan, which was supposed to go into effect July 1, was delayed when hundreds of comments from residents and small-business owners poured into council members complaining that the rates would dampen revitalization efforts and hurt businesses.
Council member Valerie Ervin (D-Silver Spring) said she proposed the repeal to correct the plan's unforeseen consequences for merchants, who said their businesses would be unfairly affected.
Ervin said the council passed the fee increase plan in May, on the advice of county staff, because it wanted county parking lot districts that operate in the red to pay money back into the general fund.
But after it was passed, she said, "my office started being inundated with e-mails and calls, and we received a petition with more than 500 signatures. I said to myself, well, clearly we need to go back and fix this because we hadn't taken into consideration all of the implications."
Small-business owners, particularly in south Silver Spring and parts of Wheaton, worried that the fees would dissuade potential customers from visiting their stores.
Some said yesterday that they welcome the repeal.
"I'm ecstatic. . . . It just wasn't fair to small businesses, and plus, there was no previous notification to us," said Brenda Smoak, owner of an arts shop in Silver Spring who helped collect the petition signatures. "I'm really thrilled the county paid attention to those who came forward."
The plan, written into the $2 billion county budget, was meant to provide some uniformity to county-run parking, as well as generate more than $700,000 a year in revenue. Other than being free on Sundays and holidays, parking spaces across the county now have very little in common.
"Our hope was at some point in the future that someone would know what the county rules are," because the regulations vary so widely from place to place, said council member Nancy Floreen (D-At Large), who chairs the transportation committee. "We're just not there yet. Obviously, this is a work in progress."
Under the plan that has been repealed, parking at all nine surface lots in Bethesda, which has been free on Saturdays, would be metered from 7 a.m. to 10 p.m. Monday through Saturday. The majority of Bethesda's parking spaces in its eight garages would have remained free on weekends.
In Silver Spring and Wheaton, metered parking on streets and lots would have been extended until 10 p.m. on weekdays and Saturdays. In North Bethesda, monthly and hourly parking rates would have increased.
The proposal drew little attention until local news outlets reported the changes and the county put up large yellow signs notifying users of the new regulations.
"I think somebody decided to pull one over, and luckily we all happened to be reading the paper that day," Smoak said.
After the uproar, County Executive Isiah Leggett (D) -- whose original budget had expanded hours in Wheaton and a lot in Silver Spring to 10 p.m. -- urged the council to nix the wider plans.
Business owners such as Smoak in south Silver Spring were particularly outraged that the proposal seemed to favor the redeveloped downtown.
"The inequity of this is Ellsworth [Drive] and Wayne [Avenue] are free every night and weekend, and there are only big-name stores up there," she said. "It would just be a funnel for people to go the garages."
Ervin said community input revealed a host of other issues with county parking such as inadequate signs and inconsistent technology for collecting fees. Once the council gets back from its recess in September, the transportation committee will begin exploring ways to improve other aspects of parking in the county.
"Recapturing the revenue is just one issue out of several that we'll take up," Ervin said. "I don't think anything is ruled out, but I know what's ruled in, and that's participation from people in the community."