One of the most valued perks of living in tiny Manassas Park is a reserved parking space at the local VRE train station.
But that advantage is threatened, and city officials are preparing to defend their residents' exclusive parking rights in court if necessary.
They have disputed a ruling by the Federal Transit Administration that because the commuter rail station lot was paid for in part with U.S. funds, the residents-only spaces violate federal discrimination laws and therefore must go.
For months, the city has stood up to pressure and pleadings from Virginia Railway Express that it relinquish the spaces. Now, Manassas Park is preparing to defend itself against a federal lawsuit filed last week.
"We are not going to cave in," said City Attorney Dean Crowhurst.
He said that city taxpayers paid for the portion of the lot where the designated spaces are and that they should be able to use them.
The contretemps comes at a time when commuter, VRE and Metro parking lots are full to bursting, with drivers trying to use carpools and mass transit around the region's traffic morass. Having dozens of reserved spaces is not going over very well.
And these are not ordinary spaces. They are the closest to the platform and painted a VIP green.
"They reserved the most convenient spots in the entire lot," said Tom Dewispelaere, a VRE rider who lives just outside the city limits. He says some of them are unused when he arrives. "You've got to drive by all these empty spaces and park in the boonies."
Dewispelaere and other commuters started commiserating on the train ride into the District. Then they started plotting.
After Dewispelaere's complaints to the city and VRE were, in his words, "pooh-poohed," he went straight to the feds, filing a complaint in July with the Federal Transit Administration.
Last month, federal officials ruled that because the parking lot was recently expanded with $1.9 million in federal funds, and since federal law prohibits discrimination, the parking privileges must cease. And if they don't, federal funds for VRE and other state transportation programs could be in jeopardy.
"When anybody accepts federal money for whatever, there comes with it certain accepted parameters," said Mark Roeber, spokesman for VRE.
Though VRE signed an agreement allowing the city to keep the reserved spaces after the parking expansion, the railroad has to comply with the federal ruling.
City officials disagree and plan to contest the lawsuit even as they continue negotiating with VRE on a compromise.
They say the 151 reserved spaces are in a lot that city taxpayers built and own. Although federal funds were used to double the number of parking spaces at the station to 600, city officials contend that the new spaces constitute a separate -- but adjacent -- 300-space lot.
"The issue is that VRE is trying to impose restrictions on a city-owned lot," said Manassas Park Vice Mayor Kevin P. Brendel. He said the reserved spaces are an amenity that draws new residents to the city of 12,000 -- a city so small that it is still fighting for its own Zip code.
"We pay enough taxes, we ought to get something for being a Manassas Park resident," said Roland Hassebrock, as he got off the 4:19 p.m. train yesterday. He invited Dewispelaere to move into town if he envies the special spots so much.
In the meantime, the city has bowed to pressure and stopped issuing $20 tickets to those who park in the reserved spaces without a city parking sticker. But the "Resident Parking Only" signs marking the special spaces are staying up -- for now.
If the resident-only spaces are removed, Dewispelaere said he would ignore any hard stares from city residents that come his way.
"If you see something wrong, it just shows that people shouldn't be afraid of the government," he said.