The Parker Harding parking lot is often full, even on weekday mornings. Several of those attending Wednesday’s Board of Selectwomen meeting said that’s because employees at nearby businesses and not shoppers park there before stores open. / Photos by Gretchen Webster
And while the Parker Harding lot, closest to the central business district, is usually filled to capacity, parking spaces often are available at the Baldwin parking lot off Elm Street, left, and the Imperial Avenue parking lot — as illustrated in these photos taken Wednesday.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Controversy over downtown parking rumbles on.

The longtime issue sparked debate Wednesday as the Board of Selectwomen considered re-establishing two-hour parking limits for downtown streets and parking lots, which had been lifted during the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020.

But after merchants, town officials and residents offered a range of opinions on the proposal, with many campaigning for three-hour limits or parking paid via apps, the decision was postponed until Aug. 16 because of legal issues.

The issue follows a decision last month by First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker to “pause” a plan to redesign the Parker Harding Plaza parking lot, which generated stiff opposition over features that included eliminating more than 40 parking spaces.

Tooker said Wednesday she had been expecting the board to simply approve reinstatement of two-hour parking limits downtown, rescinding the  temporary measure that was designed to help businesses struggling during the height of the pandemic. 

This sign in the Baldwin parking lot — listing parking limits — was already uncovered Wednesday, but the Board of Selectwomen’s vote on reinstating those limits was postponed.

Suspension of the parking time limits, approved by the board June 10, 2020, was supposed to last only until Aug. 31, 2020, according to minutes of that meeting. It does not appear the board took any action in the meantime to officially continue the suspension beyond that date, although, in practice, it has remained in effect.

Tooker said that she could have made that change administratively without public input, but chose instead to put it on the selectwomen’s agenda because she wanted feedback at a public meeting.

“We’re taking action because we know it’s not working. Parking spaces are not turning over,” the first selectwoman said.

Reinstating the two-hour limit now is the beginning of a process to gather feedback and help formulate long-range solutions to downtown parking problems, Tooker said.

“So it’s an experiment?” asked Selectwoman Candice Savin, who also questioned the reasons for reinstating the former two-hour parking limit without studying other options first.

“Downtown is very different from before the pandemic. Has there been an evaluation … input from the merchants downtown on what would be helpful to maintain the vibrancy of the downtown?” Savin asked.

Randy Herbertson, chairman of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee, told the selectwomen he believes that the real problem is that employees of downtown businesses need places to park outside the central business district to avoid competing with customers for parking spots.

“The core issue is balancing shopper parking and employee parking,” he said. 

At 9 a.m. Wednesday, the Parker Harding parking lot behind Main Street was completely full, according to Herbertson, indicating that many workers at nearby stores and restaurants already had parked there, limiting spots available for shoppers. As a future solution, he favors paid parking for the public and a different location for employee parking.

In the meantime, Herbertson said, a three-hour parking limit should be adopted immediately to help alleviate the current parking crunch.

Patrick Jean, the managing partner of Nômade restaurant on Main Street, thought the town should invest in an electronic parking system — using kiosks and technology using apps as is used in many area towns, instead of parking meters. “You pay with your phone,” he said.

Jimmy Izzo, a Representative Town Meeting member from District 3, said that for now the selectwomen should approve a three-hour limit instead of two hours, adding  that he “is all for parking meters.”

Roger Leifer, a member of the Westport Downtown Association board of directors and property owner, agreed that paid parking — whether with meters or electronic devices — would help. But the longtime town resident said the problem is bigger than setting time limits or fees.

“We’ve been discussing this problem for 35 years,” Leifer said. “No matter what system you use, there’s not enough parking.”

The only person who spoke in opposition to any form of paid parking was Matthew Mandell, the executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce.  

Setting time limits is one way to help solve the problem, he said, but paid parking would keep people from shopping or dining locally. The answer is to find a better place for employees to park than in the central business district, Mandell said.

“The Chamber of Commerce does not like the idea of paid parking,” Mandell said. “Something has to be done. Employee parking is sucking up all the parking.” 

Police Chief Foti Koskinas, who said he had not come to the Board of Selectwomen’s meeting to discuss parking, commented that it’s important to have “institutional knowledge” about the area’s longtime parking issues.

“Downtown Westport has had its ups and downs,” the chief said. “The administration is looking at this only for the benefit of the merchants.”

Koskinas said that metered or timed parking is a necessity, noting that it has been instituted in most neighboring communities. “What we have here is employees taking prime spaces,” the chief added.

The reason time limits on parking were lifted during the pandemic, he said, was because some stores had closed and others’ trade was suffering. “The purpose was for people to come to town and just walk around. It’s totally different now,” he said.

After a long discussion, Tooker was prepared to amend the resolution, calling for re-establishing parking limits at three hours instead of the initially proposed two hours.

But the decision was postponed to the next board meeting on Aug. 16 after Assistant Town Attorney Eileen Lavigne Flug asked for more time to study the legal ramifications of changing the parking restrictions.

Since the first selectwoman functions as the Local Traffic Authority, the Town Attorney’s Office will research the issue in state statutes as well as the town charter to determine if the resolution has to be reposted or changed, Flug said.

The selectwoman voted unanimously to postpone the vote until their next meeting.

Freelance writer Gretchen Webster, a Fairfield County journalist and journalism teacher for many years, was editor of the Fairfield Minuteman newspaper for 10 years and teaches journalism at Southern Connecticut State University.