Wednesday, July 25, 2007

Shop owner wants law changed

Bethesda businesswoman seeks to change parking rules to allow cars to stay on the same block

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A Bethesda business owner has started a campaign to change a little-known law that essentially makes it illegal to move a car parked at a meter whose time has expired to another spot on the same block.

Christina Bruce, who owns The Beaded Giraffe on Cordell Avenue in Bethesda, said that while many customers know that it is illegal to ‘‘feed the meter” in Bethesda, there is another law on the books that most don’t know.

After the two-hour meter expires, car owners must move their vehicles to a ‘‘new venue,” which translates into more than one block away, in order to avoid a $35 ticket, according to the Montgomery County code.

Bruce believes that the requirement could be detrimental to businesses.

‘‘I really think that if the person goes to move their car, the reasonable standard is breached by making them move to a new venue,” she said.

The law has been on the books since 1978 and has always been enforced, but due to new technology, the efficiency of the enforcement has risen, according to county Chief of Parking Operations Rick Siebert.

In past years, a parking official would walk a block, write down every license plate number, then return two hours later to see if cars had moved down the block.

‘‘We had to enforce the law street-by-street every day,” Siebert said.

Three years ago, the county purchased the $100,000 Auto Vu system, a computerized video surveillance gadget that, when affixed to a small truck, can automatically load license plate numbers from cars on the street. Two hours later the truck drives down the street again, to check if any of the same cars are still there.

While the law has always been on the books, Siebert said that it is widely unknown.

‘‘The difficulty is that most people don’t read signs,” said Siebert, who acknowledged that this law wasn’t posted on the meter or on street signs. ‘‘Even if we put it on the meters, people only read three or four lines of print before they stop.”

In order to inform the public of the law, parking officials have left warnings on cars of first-time offenders. The Auto Vu also incorporates a database of license plate numbers to verify that the vehicle is a first-time offender.

‘‘The point of doing the warning is so they get an educational lesson,” Siebert said. ‘‘We know we’re not reaching everybody, but sometimes when it affects you, you tell others.”

Bruce has penned a letter that she hopes others will send to County Council members in an effort to change the law. The letter she sent explains that if customers have to get in their car and move it an entire block every two hours, they are likely to just leave the downtown area altogether.

Other business owners on Cordell Avenue have been approached by Bruce to voice their concerns. Melissa Ballinger, the owner of Mia’s Pizza, said that the two-hour window of time for short-term parking isn’t enough.

‘‘If you were to come into Bethesda, go do dry cleaning, do some bead work at the Beaded Giraffe and grab lunch with friends, you would be way over the time on the meter,” Ballinger said. ‘‘And the long term spots in the garage are always full, so that’s not an option.”

Ballinger plans to attend a County Council public hearing, which will discuss transportation and parking issues on Thursday.

‘‘I just really think the rule hurts the commerce in the area,” she said. ‘‘What’s going to happen to the businesses?”

In reference to the business owners’ concerns, Siebert added that a simple solution is to park in one of the 5,840 spots in the county’s parking garages, which offer long-term parking.

Bruce thinks that there is only one reason why this law is on the books.

‘‘If I take a space down the block, or you move your car and take the space, it’s the same quarter,” she said. ‘‘The revenue has to be from the tickets.”

County officials disagree.

‘‘We simply want to allow another patron to use the space, because people want to park as close as possible to their location,” said Esther Bowring, a county spokeswoman. ‘‘We’re not trying to give people tickets so we can get more money; that’s crazy.”

Parking statistics from the county Department of Public Works and Transportation indicate that the Auto Vu system is responsible for a small portion of the tickets distributed in Bethesda. Monthly, about 480,000 cars park in downtown Bethesda, and slightly less than 8,900 tickets are distributed per month.

Of the 8,900 tickets, only 200 are done by Auto Vu, and 150 of those are first-time warnings.

‘‘The Auto Vu is only used in instances of overtime, like refeeding the meter or just moving your car down the block,” Bowring said. ‘‘Out of the 8,900 tickets, only about one-half of 1 percent are actual tickets, not warnings, from Auto Vu.”

Despite Bruce’s attempts, County Councilman Roger Berliner (D-Dist. 1) of Potomac, who represents Bethesda, has not heard of the campaign.

‘‘No letters have come in yet, so I can’t say what our position would be regarding it,” said Reggie Oldak, Berliner’s chief of staff.

If You Go

The County Council will hold a public hearing on transportation fees, charges and fares at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the County Council building, 100 Maryland Ave., Rockville.