Trying to curb a parking problem Crowded Ellicott City starting a crackdown

July 26, 1996|By Shanon D. Murray | Shanon D. Murray,SUN STAFF

If you want a good parking space in historic Ellicott City's commercial district, it'll cost you -- $14,500 for a three-car patch of asphalt.

"This is a bargain for a guaranteed spot," said Edward Puhl, who is peddling a tiny lot in the heart of this historic Patapsco Valley mill town, where parking spaces are as a scarce as a dime cup of coffee.

The days of free-for-all parking are coming to an end in the quaint valley, overrun nights and weekends by tourists seeking antiques, tattoos or a bite to eat.

As of today, a private parking enforcement firm will patrol the district, writing out $14 tickets for those violating the new one- and two-hour parking restrictions along the town's narrow Main Street.

And those who once parked free in coveted parking lots close to the district's restaurants will now have to pump coins into meters in some of those lots -- up to two quarters for each hour.

The idea, local officials say, is to break the gridlock and give tourists a fair shot at convenient spaces often taken by merchants and their employees. County planning officials, in cooperation with some merchants, devised the plan over a two-year period.

Grumbles could be heard already yesterday, even as a pair of officers from J.L. Associates chalked tires and gave out notices warning illegally parked motorists about the new rules.

"They can ticket me every day if they want. I'm going to keep parking right on the street in front of my shop," said Bill Peoples, owner of the Hysterical Tattoo shop on Main Street, who is used to parking his truck all day in what is now a one-hour zone.

Mike Morey, a Catonsville resident and frequent Ellicott City shopper, said, "This will only turn people away. People want to come down here to relax, not worry about parking."

No one disputes that parking in historic Ellicott City -- nestled in a steep valley between rocky hills -- can be a nightmare. But some already have made targets of the plan's enforcers.

"People are telling me to get a real job. Merchants are accusing me of making Ellicott City a ghost town. I'm hearing all kinds of things," said Joyce Potter, one of the officers patrolling. "We're just trying to create more spaces so they can have more business."

The district has 1,050 parking spaces, 180 on Main Street and 870 in seven public lots.

But the nine restaurants in the area seat 1,400. Add the patrons of dozens of antique shops, gift boutiques and other stores, and it works out to a shortage of spaces for visitors.

Officials say the new parking rules should create more turnover of parking spaces along Main Street and in the district's most convenient lots. That, in turn, should make it it easier for shoppers and diners to find a berth during the crowded lunch and dinner hours, they say.

Howard County has provided $85,000 this year to hire officers from Hampton, Va.-based J.L. Associates, which also patrols parts of Baltimore and Montgomery counties. The officers will prowl the district on foot.

Some of the intended beneficiaries of the new rules -- the merchants who supposedly need convenient parking for their customers -- are skeptical. They say business will suffer if customers feel rushed to move their cars to avoid getting ticketed.

"One or two hours for street parking is not enough time," said John Shoemaker, who works in a home-design shop on Main Street. "Once customers start getting tickets, they won't come back."

Walter Jackson, a bookstore owner, said, "I don't think it'll leave tourists with a nice impression of the town."

Then there are those in the district who say complaints about parking there are overblown.

"I honestly think parking isn't part of the problem, but part of the experience of Ellicott City," said Ed Williams, director of the town's B&O Railroad Station Museum. When tourists have to park far away, "they get to roam the river valley and see a gorgeous environmental and architectural view."

Pub Date: 7/26/96

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