Stefan Hard / Staff File Photo
A Montpelier plow clears a street during a heavy winter storm last year.
MONTPELIER — On Thursday, Nov. 15, the city’s seasonal parking ban goes into place.
Do you know where your car is? You’d better.
According to the ordinance, until April 1, 2013, no “motor vehicles, teams, carts, or any other conveyance” can remain parked on the street for more than one hour from 1 to 7 a.m.
Ignoring the ban could prove to be a costly mistake.
In October, Police Chief Anthony Facos issued a news release with a warning that vehicles in violation of the ban will be subject to removal by towing at the owners’ expense. The towing fee for the coming season is $65 and it always comes paired with an additional $15 parking ticket.
While the ban presents a hardship for drivers who do not have access to off-street parking, city officials see it as a viable and budget-friendly way to keep the streets ready for snow removal operations through the winter.
Residents who object to the ordinance argue that city plowers are unlikely to perform snow-removal operations every night for the next four and a half months. On Nov. 16, 2011, the morning after the start of the ban, Montpelier resident Ryan Koloski received a ticket for parking on the street in front of his home.
“The road was dry, there wasn’t any snow, and I just didn’t think about it,” he said.
In response to this kind of complaint, Facos and the Montpelier police run an educational campaign each fall for two weeks leading up to the ban. This includes news releases and posting informational fliers on cars parked overnight in the street. There’s also signage about the ban posted at of the city’s access points.
For anyone who still hasn’t gotten the message, Facos said, “We will issue tickets once the ban is in effect. By being clear on the education early and getting people to comply, we’re having to tow a lot less when those first storms hit.”
When on-street parking becomes unavailable in November, some drivers are forced to take on extra winter expenses. Private vehicle lots are listed on Vermont’s Craigslist for monthly rents between $50 and $80.
Tom Vivian of Bob’s Sunoco Towing recalled a “habitual offender” whose car he removed from the street multiple times during one winter. “She said it was cheaper to get towed than to pay for regular (off-street) parking.”
In many cases, people with no driveway access must rely on the kindness of friends and neighbors with extra space in their driveways to save money. But such arrangements can strain even the best friendships in a city where available parking is at a premium.
As a small solution, the parking lot behind City Hall offers limited free year-round overnight parking. But since the available spaces alternate each day of the week, it can be difficult to keep track of where it’s OK to park from one night to the next.
When Theresa Hait moved to Montpelier, she said she specifically searched for an apartment with off-street parking. Even so, she anticipates that hosting winter visitors will be a challenge because they won’t be able to park on the street.
“That’s almost half the year that having friends or family from out of state would be difficult,” she said.
In spite of this difficulty, the parking ban is perhaps most important to obey in Montpelier’s hilly residential neighborhoods, where road width is an issue.
Many of the streets outside of downtown are barely wide enough for plow trucks to pass through even without parked cars in the way, and the steep terrain can sometimes make bad road conditions worse, the city warns.
“One of our key concerns is getting an ambulance to you, or a fire truck if you need it,” said City Manager William Fraser. “So even some on those streets where you can fit a Toyota, you can’t fit an emergency vehicle if there’s on-street parking and snowbanks. We can’t restrict part of a street from getting public safety services.”
Hait described a different parking ban system in Burlington, where she lived for six years: “They had lights on the major roads so you’d easily see if the parking ban light was flashing on your drive home. This allowed the many people without off-street parking to need to find alternate parking only a few times during the winter — not every night.”
Fraser agreed that switching to an emergency winter ban system similar to Burlington’s sounds good in theory.
“If there was an easy way to say, ‘The winter parking ban is in effect, take your cars here,’ we’d be all for it,” he said. “I totally get how that would be easier for residents.”
In reality, such a switch would present a different challenge in the form of significant infrastructure investment. In addition to the requisite flashing lights, the new system would likely require building a municipal parking garage, where the city could direct cars once an emergency ban took effect. The garage alone could cost up to $6 million, city officials warned.
The bottom line, according to Fraser, is that the ban will stand as long as there are no better alternatives.
“We recognize that it’s difficult for residents. That’s why we take whatever precautions we can and make it as easy as possible. We’re not trying to be the heavy-handed government coming down and making money off of this. And if we could really figure out a better way to do it, we would,” he said.
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