Scenes of the season in historic Annapolis: lights in the windows, garlands and bows around 18th-century doorways - and free parking for harried holiday shoppers.
In an effort to keep the downtown shopping district competitive with its shopping mall rivals, the city of Annapolis has continued its decade-old tradition of free parking this year. Drivers may park in metered spaces in Annapolis free through Jan. 5.
The free, two-hour parking applies only to metered spaces and does not affect parking garages or the parking regulations on residential streets, an Annapolis police spokesman said.
Many shoppers enjoy the thrill of finding a coveted on-street parking spot - and only then notice the red-and-white bags covering the parking meters.
"I love the free parking," said Jerry Barbacano, an Edgewater resident who found a parking space on Main Street on Friday afternoon. "I'm just glad to get a space. I hope they do it every year."
Annapolis Mayor Ellen O. Moyer said the eased parking restrictions are as much about competition as community spirit.
"We're a small city ringed by huge shopping centers that don't charge for parking, so giving shoppers and businesses free parking encourages people to come downtown to shop," Moyer said.
"The holidays are a very festive time downtown, and we have a lot of neat places in the city, so we wanted to make it easier for people to come down and enjoy themselves."
Other historic downtown areas and smaller shopping districts also try to ease parking.
Baltimore County gave shoppers free parking in all metered spaces and county garages the Friday after Thanksgiving. The parking holiday will go into effect again in Baltimore County Dec. 22 to 24 after 4 p.m. each day. The Ellicott City historic district offers a trolley service from parking areas to shops.
Parking was free in Annapolis in the Hillman and Gotts Court parking garages and the Navy-Marine Corps Memorial Stadium during the annual Midnight Madness shopping extravaganza Thursday night. Businesses extend their hours to midnight during that event, which includes caroling and a visit from Santa.
Annapolis also offers free parking during the city's annual First Night New Year's celebrations.
Many merchants in the historic Annapolis district are enthusiastic about the adjusted parking regulations.
"It eases the minds of shoppers when they know they don't have to rush out to feed the meters," said Cris Oliphant, a sales associate at Annapolis Maritime Art Gallery Ltd. at City Dock.
Bob Burdon, president of the Annapolis and Anne Arundel County Chamber of Commerce, said free holiday parking is something the business community pushed for years ago.
"It's something the merchants feel very strongly about," Burdon said. "Downtown has its own ambience, but parking is an issue. With the free two-hour parking, people are coming down to eat and shop and enjoy the colonial atmosphere."
Maria Baker, owner of the Pewter Chalice on Main Street, whose shop is entering its 20th year in business, said free two-hour parking provides a nice touch for the holiday season.
"In a historic district like this, parking does present a problem," Baker said. "But the two-hour limit provides a nice rotation of customers. The free parking definitely helps."
Joyce Kaminkow, owner of Annapolis Country Store on Maryland Avenue, sees it as a goodwill gesture as long as the two-hour limit is enforced.
Some said the city could do more.
Alice Roscher and Beverly Fossum, sales associates at Christmas Spirit on Main Street, said the two-hour free parking brings people downtown but that shoppers are concerned about moving their cars every two hours to avoid fines.
Parking enforcement officers enforce the two-hour limit, which is in effect whether or not the parking charge is required. Motorists who park for longer than two hours in a metered space will be fined a minimum of $25.
Discovery Channel Store assistant manager Leslie Joesting said the free-parking signs covering the meters are a bit deceptive.
"I didn't see the two-hour limit at first," Joesting said. "And even though you don't have to pay to park, you still have to watch those meter maids."