The labor contractions had started, but they weren't yet serious, so nine-months pregnant Jess Hobart kept her hair appointment in Bethesda last weekend. Her husband drove her and parked in the lot behind the Curl Jam Hair Studio in the Connor Building on Wisconsin Avenue.

After eating lunch in the car, Hobart's husband, Alexander Pivovarsky, took a quick walk around the block. By the time he got back, the car was gone. Towed. His was one of the four to 10 cars that store owners and employees say are pulled daily off the private lot and taken to a yard in northern Rockville.

"It was miserable . . . miserable," said Curl Jam owner Diane Wirono, who called the tow company on behalf of Hobart and Pivovarsky but got nowhere. She paid the couple's $30 cab fare to pick up their car, which cost them $141 to retrieve. "What if she had gone into labor?"

The parking tug of war has played out again and again across Bethesda -- in cars regularly towed, meters fed twice yet still ticketed, parking costs extended through evenings and weekends, and store owners and customers uncomfortably at odds over increasingly precious parking spots. The story has been repeated across the Washington region, from the cobblestone streets of Old Town Alexandria to rejuvenated D.C. neighborhoods. In Bethesda, such tensions date to the 1950s, when demand for more parking led to Montgomery's first "parking lot districts." In 1950, the county teamed up with developers to build central, public lots.

"In big cities, people are used to having to deal with parking," Wirono said. But "Bethesda, having been a small town," aggravates visitors expecting to find suburban, car-friendly convenience.

Wirono has taken to warning clients who come for highlights and perms, which take longer than two hours, to move their cars or risk being towed.

Other store owners say parking-spot freeloaders rob them of business.

"Very few people would come into this store and steal a pair of socks," said Ben Leaderman, co-owner of A Step Ahead shoe store. "But when they pull into the lot" and don't patronize the stores there, they're doing just that. "Situational ethics," he calls it.

"You get towed because you did something wrong," added optician Rich Lepski at Chic Optics, another Connor Building tenant. "We can sometimes get 10 or 15 [cars] towed a day -- on a good day." He adds, "That parking is for our customers."

But Hobart was a customer. And so was Liz Rose, who lives in Chevy Chase D.C.

On a recent Saturday afternoon, Rose pulled into the Connor lot on Woodmont Avenue intent on buying a smoothie. With no cash in her wallet, though, she detoured to a nearby bank before heading into Smoothie King. By then, a tow truck was pulling her car from the lot. She never got the smoothie.

"This practice is so predatory," she seethed on the phone, days after the incident. "The lot was half-empty, and I am a customer." She will no longer shop in Bethesda, she has decided.

Montgomery County has added parking spaces in Bethesda as its downtown has become a more popular destination for diners and shoppers. Today, Bethesda's two new garages, the Metropolitan (with 937 parking spaces) and the Cheltenham (with 345 spaces), are tucked underneath high-rise office and residential buildings.

While Bethesda today has 7,399 public parking spaces stretched along the Wisconsin Avenue corridor, between Bradley Boulevard and Battery Lane, 750 of those spaces are now closed while the Woodmont Corner Garage, at Woodmont and Old Georgetown Road, is renovated. And Montgomery County is already accepting proposals to transform the surface lot (with 279 spaces) across Bethesda Avenue from Barnes & Noble into another high-rise. Parking will be underground.

Already, Bethesda has outdone the District, extending its parking meters beyond normal business hours to 10 p.m. weeknights and Saturdays. And those limits are strict: Motorists who park at a two-hour meter, then return to feed it more money, can be ticketed. If the signs say two hours, that's all you get, said Tom Pogue, community outreach manager for the county's Department of Public Works and Transportation.

And parkers who check for tires slashed white with chalk -- evidence that the meter officer has swept the street -- will not find them: Officers today plug license plate numbers into hand-held computers, which tell them when two hours have elapsed.

The issue is not lost on local politicians. "This is a hot-button issue," said County Council member Howard A. Denis (R), who represents Bethesda. "For most of Bethesda, most of the time . . . people's attitude is like that old Woody Allen joke, 'I'm never going to go there anymore because you can't get a table.' "

And while the Montgomery County consumer affairs agency used to get a lot of complaints about the towing situation at the Connor lot, investigator Doug Numbers said, it doesn't get as many anymore, since a 2-by-4-foot sign was put up. It warns in huge, red lettering: "Private parking for patrons while in Connor Building only. Towing strictly enforced."

Hobart and Pivovarsky contacted G&G Towing but have not heard back. The firm declined to comment for this article and referred all calls to Premier Parking, which runs the parking lot. Premier requested all questions in writing but did not respond Friday.

"I had one a couple weeks ago from one of the banks down there," Numbers continued. A woman went to the bank, then went somewhere else, and the security guard who watched her walk off the property called the towing company. She called Numbers to complain.

"I'm their customer," he recalled her saying.

"Ma'am, it's their prerogative. It's their property," he told her.

The Connor Building lot is packed on a weekday. Merchants in the building want the spaces to be just for customers.