Signs of confusion: Parking time limits, “no parking” restrictions, reserved spaces and directional guidance posted around downtown can be bewildering. / Photos by Gretchen Webster

By Gretchen Webster

WESTPORT — Debate over downtown parking is not new. But a plan to re-impose limits on parking, revised from a stalled plan last month, is primed to hit the road.

On Wednesday, the Board of Selectwomen is scheduled to discuss a new version of plans to set time limits on parking since they were lifted during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic in June 2020. The board is scheduled to meet at 9 a.m. in the Town Hall auditorium

The plan, postponed from the selectwomen’s meeting last month when questions arose, now proposes three-hour time limits for parking in the downtown area, as well as introducing a uniform plan for the town’s municipal parking lots.

Downtown merchants, residents who live in the area, the Downtown Plan Implementation Committee and others over the last several months have wrestled with varied — often unpopular — parking scenarios, an issue that has been debated for years. 

Recent suggestions, in addition to imposing the pre-pandemic parking time limits, have included removing parking spaces to make existing lots safer and greener, requiring paid parking with meters or kiosks and designating lots for downtown employees.

Signs point to parking confusion

But no wonder there is confusion and disagreement over parking downtown when a look at municipal parking lots around the business district shows that anyone coming to park in downtown Westport faces a multitude of different signs and parking policies, even within a single lot.

For example, a sign at the Bay Street municipal lot across from Police Department headquarters, says there is a two-hour parking limit and that all-day parking is available “BEHIND LYMAN BUILDING,” with no mention of what and where the Lyman building is. And immediately next to that sign are warning signs on each side: “NO PARKING, RESERVED PARKING BY PERMIT ONLY” and that “UNAUTHORIZED VEHICLES WILL BE TOWED.” So what’s a driver to do? 

Delivery vehicles in the downtown area will also note signs in the Parker Harding Plaza lot stating they can park in a loading zone there between 8 a.m. and 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, while just around the block on Main Street in front of the same buildings they can park in a loading zone only from 8 a.m. to noon. 

And across the Main Street area, “Enjoy Open Parking” signs can be found.

The Imperial Avenue parking lot — farthest from the core commercial district but often mentioned as the best site for employee parking — stands completely empty most of the time. The only signs note, “NO PARKING FARMERS MARKET THURSDAYS,” and three signs limiting spaces to “SHUTTLE PARKING ONLY,” even though shuttle service to the lot from downtown no longer exists. 

Lengthier parking limits proposed, but other issues loom

Reinstituting time-limited parking in downtown Westport was on the agenda of the selectwomen’s July 26 meeting when legal issues postponed the vote. The plan had then called for renewing the pre-pandemic two-hour limit, which would be expanded to three hours under the revised proposal up for a vote Wednesday.

Meanwhile, another meeting on issues of parking and broader downtown plans is scheduled for Aug. 22. The forum on “Reconnecting the Riverfront” is planned for “public review and feedback” on the DPIC’s master plan for downtown parking and pedestrian areas, and will take place at 7 p.m. Tuesday, Aug. 22, in the Westport Library.

A key element of those plans — a proposal to redesign Parker Harding’s parking lot — encountered stiff opposition, prompting First Selectwoman Jennifer Tooker to “pause” the plan in June.

Controversy over the Parker Harding project and related issues has grown over the last several months, highlighting longterm issues over the often-competing interests of downtown businesses, their patrons, their employees and area residents.

Business owners and residents sounded off at several meetings in opposition to the Parker Harding redesign, focusing on the proposed elimination of 44 spaces as well as the cut-through road between Main Street and Post Road East. (Read about some of their concerns here and here.)

A Special Services District for downtown?

Another recently discussed topic is a Special Services District that could potentially levy a tax for extra maintenance downtown, the costs of which some merchants fear would be passed on to them by landlords. 

Creation of a Special Services District came up Aug. 7 when several merchants, Representative Town Meeting members Sal Liccone and Matthew Mandell, who also is the executive director of the Westport-Weston Chamber of Commerce, and a few residents met informally at Rye Ridge Deli. That issue, however, has not been up for discussion at DPIC meetings in recent months, even though it is listed as a “Key Initiative” of  the master plan on the DPIC website.

Another concern mentioned at the informal gathering is that six spaces in the public parking lot behind Bedford Square are marked “Reserved Parking” for the private company Logicsource. 

However, Tom Kiely, town operations director for Tooker, said last Friday those spaces had been acquired by the business in a property swap with the town several years ago. Kiely was reviewing signs in the town’s municipal lots Friday morning in preparation for the selectwomen’s Wednesday meeting.

Another concern raised at the deli gathering was that both the Wednesday selectwomen’s meeting and the Aug. 22 downtown forum should be postponed until September when more people will be back in town after their vacations.

Those meeting dates, however, have not been changed.

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.