Wednesday, July 30, 2008

Supporters outnumber opponents in truck-ban debate

Neighborhoods cite safety; business owners say on-street parking is a matter of livelihood

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Proposed legislation that would tightly restrict the parking of commercial vehicles and large trucks along county roads has been met by far more support than opposition.

At a public hearing on the measure last week, the first since it was introduced by County Council President Michael J. Knapp five weeks ago, 12 of 15 speakers favored making the restrictions law. And of more than 120 e-mails and letters sent to the council, supporters outweigh opponents nearly 3-1.

Those opposed to the bill have raised the specter of elitism, while those in favor are hailing it as a long-sought remedy to the threat of roadway safety and community aesthetics that they say large trucks, RVs and commercial vehicles pose.

That sentiment has been particularly strong in neighborhoods such as Cinnamon Woods in Germantown, Flower Hill in Gaithersburg and Westleigh in North Potomac.

And in Montgomery Village — where the problem has been endemic for several years amid ‘‘an ever-increasing number of such vehicles” — the support is whole-hearted and unwavering, said Bob Hydorn, president of the Montgomery Village Foundation during his testimony at the hearing.

Allowing large vehicles to park without restriction is an undue burden on neighborhoods that bear the brunt of business owners trying to avoid the cost of paying for parking for their commercial vehicles, said Ed Brandt, president of Montgomery Village’s Patton Ridge Homes Corp.

‘‘That’s the bottom line. That’s what it costs to do business in this county. Or you’re forcing we as taxpayers to underwrite companies’ parking,” he told the County Council. ‘‘... However, the real issue, the real issue, is safety. Three children almost were killed in our community this year because they were trying to cross a road between two large trucks.”

Opposition to Knapp’s bill has come strongest from small businesses and owners of recreational motor homes, many of whom see the issue as falling along class lines.

‘‘My truck to me is my livelihood,” testified Alex Moschonas, who owns a produce company in Silver Spring. ‘‘... I love my truck; it’s a beautiful thing to me. I like to have it close to me, near to where I live to protect it from hoodlums.

‘‘If I am forced to find another place to park it,” he said, ‘‘it will cost me another 12 hours a week in travel time, plus wear and tear and lots of gas and more emissions in the air. Why is it that some of the elitists in this community hate truckers? ... The blue-collar workers and truckers of this county are treated as second-class citizens. Stop your discrimination against us and let us coexist.”

County Executive Isiah Leggett is backing the bill in the hopes that it can bring clarity and balance to what for years has been the county’s ‘‘ad hoc approach” to parking enforcement that varies among police districts and enforcing agencies, said Thomas Street, one of Leggett’s assistant chief administrative officers.

Before giving his definitive support to the bill, Leggett wants to exempt ‘‘light commercial vehicles such pickup trucks, utility vans and other similar vehicles,” Street said, and wait for the recommendations of his task force on code enforcement, which are expected at the end of the month.

‘‘The county executive is convinced that together we can arrive at a solution that will strike the right balance,” Street said.

More than 8,700 people in Montgomery County have commercial driver’s licenses, according to data from the Maryland Motor Vehicle Administration.

At the July 22 hearing, council members called on staff to identify the problem streets, to find data on accidents attributed to obstructed sight lines, to bring clarity on what the rules are and to look more closely at the situation for recreational vehicles.

‘‘There’s got to be some give and take,” said Councilman George Leventhal (D-At Large) of Takoma Park.

But Councilman Mark Elrich (D-At Large) of Takoma Park was sure of one thing: owners of commercial vehicles should absolutely be required to park on commercial lots.

‘‘I don’t think there’s any other line on that,” he said ‘‘... I don’t have any sympathy at all for strictly commercial vehicles.”

Disagreeing, Councilman Don Praisner (D-Dist. 4) of Calverton also called for the eventual legislation to ‘‘very carefully define legal and illegal” vehicles.

As those details are hashed out, Knapp is looking for part of the solution to come from finding space in underutilized parking lots, especially private commercial lots and state-owned commuter lots along Interstate 270. Knapp said he is meeting with state highway officials and private owners this week.

In the meantime, he called for more input from residents.

‘‘When I introduced this legislation, it was with the recognition that there are lots of ways to try to address this issue and we have to start the conversation someplace,” he said at the hearing. ‘‘And so what we introduced was a place to begin the conversation.”

The bill will next be reviewed at the council’s subcommittee on public safety, on Sept. 11.

Moving along

Under the proposed legislation, any of the following dimensions would qualify vehicles for being banned from county streets within one block of a residence, playground, church or school:

More than 19 feet long

More than 8 feet tall

More than 5 tons gross vehicle weight

More than 1-ton capacity