Reinstituting time limits on downtown parking again proved a tough topic for consensus at Wednesday’s meeting of the Board of Selectwomen. Shown debating the issue are, clockwise from left, First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker, Selectwoman Candice Savin and Gina Porcello, an owner of GG & Joe coffee shop on Parker Harding Plaza.

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Time limits on parking downtown were re-established Wednesday by the Board of Selectwomen, returning to a policy enforced before the COVID-19 pandemic, a split decision that sparked criticism from some at the meeting.

When the parking regulations take effect, motorists will have three hours to park in short-term spots in municipal lots and street spaces between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m., and violators will be issued parking tickets. Spaces currently designated for all-day parking, however, will retain that status. 

First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker’s efforts to bring back parking limits for the first time since June 2020 met with resistance at the Board of Selectwomen’s meeting in July, and again Wednesday when some merchants, Representative Town Meeting members and others questioned the policy and asked that a decision be postponed.

One of the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee’s goals is to redesign the Parker Harding parking lot, adding green space and a riverfront boardwalk.
Parker Harding Plaza’s parking lot was already filled to capacity on a recent morning — an issue cited by several speakers at Wednesday’s meeting. / File photo

Several speakers asked the vote on parking limits be held after a broader discussion of re-design plans for Parker Harding Plaza’s lot and related issues is held Tuesday, Aug. 22. That forum, which officials are calling a charrette, will be hosted by the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee at 7 p.m. in the Westport Library

“The merchants have not been asked for their opinion,” Gina Porcello, owner of GG & Joe coffee shop, told the selectwomen. “How come nobody has reached out to me?” as a representative merchant, she asked.

“This is our reach out,” Tooker responded, noting that it was the Board of Selectwomen’s second meeting on the topic, and that the meeting agenda and other information about the issue had been available on the town’s website. “This is why we do our business in public,” she said.

Porcello was also critical of what she said is the lack of a real discussion between officials and downtown merchants after Tooker commented the selectwomen’s meeting was the time for discussion of the parking issue. “But it’s not really a discussion,” Porcello responded, “because it’s people talking at you and you talking at people … there’s no brainstorming session at a meeting set up like this.”

“We know parking downtown is a problem,” Tooker said. “Spaces are not circulating. I think this is a great time to tackle the problem.” 

Tom Kiely, town operations director for Tooker, said that he had gathered  feedback from several retailers who said they favor re-imposing time limits on parking. The previous two-hour parking limits were suspended in June 2020 to encourage business during the pandemic, which slowed substantially because of health and safety regulations.

Since then, however, an influx of new businesses and residents who moved to town during the pandemic have contributed to growing traffic and parking problems.

A map of municipal parking lots in downtown Westport.

Under the plan adopted Wednesday, time limits will be placed on about 550 spaces of the more than 2,000 parking spaces in public and private lots downtown. The rest will remain all-day parking spaces, Kiely said.

A parking survey was sent out to 200 members of the Westport Downtown Association, according to Maxxwell Crowley, president of the association. Out of the 40 surveys that were returned, 60 percent said they did not want any parking limits and 73 percent said they did not want paid parking at all, such as meters or kiosks installed, he said.

Crowley outlined the main theme that he saw in the survey responses — if three-hour limits are established, the first three hours should be free with an option to pay for a fourth hour.

Crowley and Police Chief Foti Koskinas told the meeting the Parker Harding lot is usually full by 9 a.m., a strong indication that those vehicles belong to downtown employees, and since they often remain parked for much of the workday, usurp spaces for shoppers and diners.

“I’m hoping to bring a common sense approach,” the chief said. “The timing is that we have a Thanksgiving holiday coming … the Christmas holiday coming, we are trying to make every effort to have as high a turnover as possible to assist the businesses … The reality is there is adequate parking, but it’s being filled up early in the morning by people who can park in other places.”

Three RTM members from District 9, which encompasses the downtown area, all spoke in favor of postponing the vote on parking limits.

RTM member Kristin Schneeman said she feels a decision should be delayed until after there has been a broader discussion of overall downtown parking redesign plans.

“It’s important to look at this issue holistically. I feel that in the next six months we’re going to be making significant traffic flow and other changes to traffic issues downtown — we should be make them holistically … I support postponing.”

RTM member Nancy Kail asked, “Are there plans to measure the efficacy of this decision and to understand if it is, in fact, working?” 

And Sal Liccione, the third RTM speaker, said he thought the Aug. 22 forum should also be postponed because many residents will be on vacation.

Selectwoman Candice Savin agreed with those questioning aspects of the proposed policy. 

“It does seem hard to park downtown,” she said. “There needs to be more turnover … but at the same time I’m very frustrated that we don’t have good evidence that the merchants [agree] …

“I don’t like the ‘we know what is best for you approach,’ ” Savin said. 

She voted against the timed parking resolution, but it passed 2-1 with Tooker and Selectwoman Andrea Moore voting in favor.

Parking enforcement

Police Cpl. Alan D’Amura, after the meeting, said the new time limits on parking cannot be enforced until new signs are ordered and installed, and the old ones removed by the Public Works Department. 

Once signs are installed, the time limits probably will be enforced in the same way they were when two-hour limits were in place before the pandemic, he added.

At that time, a traffic agent — a Police Department employee but not a police officer — would patrol the lots during the day using a hand-held device to note license plates and the time parked. If a vehicle was not moved before the parking limit expired, the driver would be issued a ticket with a fine. 

Traffic agents worked from 7 a.m. to 3 p.m. in the past, he said, with police officers taking over for the last few hours of restricted parking. Police officers also would handle violations for vehicles parked in no-parking or handicapped zones, or vehicles that appear to be abandoned or damaged, he said.

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.