The first two hours of parking are free at Leesburg's Town Hall garage, but many people park there all day without paying a cent. They show up early to nab one of the prime street-level spots, and just before the two-hour grace period is up, they drive their vehicle around the block and re-enter.
Some people even keep the same spot all day, while tourists with dollars to spend and residents who want to make a quick stop must drive to the garage's higher levels or search for on-street parking.
"We know that people do that," said Betsy Fields, Leesburg's economic development director. Fields has been working for more than a year on a new downtown parking plan based on the philosophy that the longer the stay, the less convenient a parking spot needs to be.
"We have plenty of parking downtown, but it's not all located within 10 feet of King and Market streets," Fields told the Town Council at its work session Monday night.
Consultants with Desman Associates, a nationwide firm specializing in the planning, design and restoration of multilevel parking lots, said last year that although Leesburg had sufficient parking, it was mismanaging the spots, which include the 397-space Town Hall garage just west of King Street, 150 on-street meters, about 200 spots at two Loudoun County lots on the downtown periphery and 72 at a lot near the courthouse. There also are a number of free spots around the edge of the historic district.
The new parking plan would allow one hour of free parking in the Town Hall garage instead of two. An additional free hour would be available with a merchant's stamp on the parking stub. The parking fee after the grace period would increase from 50 cents an hour with a $4 daily limit to 50 cents an hour for the first four paid hours and $1 an hour for the next three hours with a $5 daily limit. In addition, more signs would direct motorists to the Town Hall garage and other lots.
The policy would also standardize meter rates, which vary across town, to 50 cents an hour. In the town's highest traffic areas on Market, King, Loudoun and Wirt streets, two-hour parking limits at meters would be reduced to one hour or 30 minutes.
The parking limits would be enforced by "parking concierges" equipped with handheld ticketing devices and software to make it easier for the town to give citations and track payment. There was a full-time attendant at the Town Hall garage, but she quit recently. The new plan proposes at least four part-time workers, at a total cost of $84,000 a year, who could work at the garage and monitor meters and issue tickets. Police officers also write tickets on occasion.
The Town Council is expected to vote on the parking plan at its meeting Sept. 28. If approved, it could take effect early next year.
Fields emphasized that the goal of the new rules would be to better administer Leesburg's parking options, not to increase parking revenue, which was estimated at $52,000 for fiscal year 2003-04. In the first full year of implementation, the changes are expected to net $38,000 because of the cost of equipment. In subsequent years, the town could net about $100,000 a year, Fields said.
Police Chief Joseph R. Price said the system would help police crack down on parking violators with outstanding tickets.
"They will generate letters to scofflaws who haven't paid, and they will take appropriate action," Price said. "It fixes our collections process, which is nonexistent at this point."
Linda Callagy, owner of Potomac Gallery on King Street, said she thinks the rules would help business by freeing up spots nearby.
"We have so many people who come in and say, 'I couldn't find a parking space' when what they mean is, 'I couldn't find parking out front,' " Callagy said. She said the merchant validation plan was a satisfactory compromise between the current policy and eliminating the grace period entirely, as a previous parking proposal had suggested.