Parking-Gate Strikes Downtown Woodland

parking

By Rick Langenberg:

(related front page Story)

A growing feud between several business operators in downtown Woodland Park has forced the city’s top boss to assume a new job title: Head parking referee. “It has gotten somewhat heated,” admitted City Manager David Buttery, in an interview last week in which he outlined the city’s position in monitoring activity along central business parking lots in downtown Woodland that are used by many visitors, business patrons and employees of a number of shops, restaurants and galleries. These easement agreements with local businesses date back to 2001. Around this period, there had been a community wide discussion about a possible highway bypass in Woodland Park. “It has actually worked very well up to this point,” said Buttery. “We were hoping that the businesses could work out these disputes themselves and that government would not have to get involved.”

But that said, Buttery believes it’s the city’s obligation to assist in reinforcing the intent of the easement agreements that allow Woodland Park to regulate these central business lots to a certain degree. And that means trying to play peace-maker in handling possible disputes regarding such hot issues as parking. “I am a rule follower,” said Buttery. “I am obligated to follow the agreements. I have that authority.”

Enforcement put on hold

Luckily for some, the latest parking fight may experience a temporary time-out. Last week, city officials postponed plans to present a new parking lot sign enforcement law, which could allow the police to issue tickets, and under certain circumstances, even tow vehicles of motorists who don’t abide by signs posted in city-regulated lots. These areas, representing at least a dozen businesses, encompass more than several hundred spots for vehicle parking.

Under the possible law, this could put more teeth into regulations that forbid parking in certain spots on snow days and for parking for a limited period in certain lots. Currently, the city has no way to enforce any signs posted throughout town in public parking lots. The council agreed last Thursday to postpone this proposed ordinance and no date has been set for when the new enforcement regulations would be heard. No public comment or staff presentation was made at last week’s meeting regarding this issue.

However, the temporary parking reprieve probably won’t create a love pact between certain business operators.

In recent weeks, the fight has gotten quite ugly with questions raised over the city’s intent to limit public parking throughout the downtown to a two hour period; allegations over special treatment for certain business owners, especially with those with ties to the Downtown Development Authority; the reported harassment of customers and business employees and owners; the deliberate hogging of parking spots allocated to patrons and the exhibiting of outright rude behavior between several business operators, and even a showdown over music and entertainment during art walks. Some have jokingly referred to the feud as another Woodland Park “cat fight,” while some business folks maintain that the city’s downtown business future is at stake.

The fight has sparked an explosion of e-mails, the launching of a petition effort and the contacting of several council members, with a request to intervene. “This is hurting my business,” blasted April McMicken, owner of the Summit Salon and Beauty School. “This is supposed to be a free public parking lot and a pedestrian plaza.”

Buttery himself has come under fire, with one local columnist accusing him of acting like a “tin horn dictator” and changing easement contracts for his own benefit. “That is absolutely not true,” said the city manager, who has outlined a detailed paper trail in demonstrating the city’s role in overseeing the parking situation over the last decade. “I have never been accused of anything like that in dealing with this.” According to Buttery, his position in handling the downtown parking situation has been “grossly misrepresented.” Moreover, he has denied any attempt to establish a blanket two hour parking limit throughout the downtown core. “That would be financial suicide,” said the city manager.

According to Buttery, the city reluctantly got involved in the latest parking dispute when the owner of Curves of Woodland Park, Jan Cummer, approached the city about intervening with a problem regarding an adjacent business, with their employees reportedly using a vast majority of the parking spots. According to Buttery, the Curves owner unsuccessfully tried to convince these employees to not park so close to her building.

Based on his knowledge and interpretation of the easement agreements, Buttery offered to permit a two hour parking limit in a certain lot around Curves if Cummer obtained two-thirds of the signatures of the property owners within a certain block. The business and building owner succeeded in meeting this threshold and two hour limit parking signs were installed by the city in the lot adjacent to Curves. But McMicken strongly opposes the two hour limit, saying it has a negative impact on her business. She also contends that the posting of the two hour signs violates provisions of an easement agreement crafted between the city and the owners of the Salon property. Buttery, however, contends he made the same offer to the salon and beauty school owner, allowing her to alter the parking rules in the lot, adjacent to her shop, if she got two-thirds of the property owners’ permission.

McMicken then submitted a petition, signed by many business representatives in the downtown who strongly opposed efforts to impose two hour parking limits. In this petition, it states: “An ordinance is being proposed that would limit all public parking in downtown Woodland Park to two hours. If you are concerned that this could limit your potential customers, dissuade customers from coming downtown, or if you would prefer a continuation of free public parking, please sign.” McMicken received a bevy of signatures from merchants and business owners, with no one favoring the two hour limit.

That’s when the parking fireworks ignited. Buttery sent out a strongly worded e-mail to many people and business representatives, denying the city’s intent to limit parking to two hours throughout the downtown and contending that the Summit business owner didn’t follow his request in any way. “I wanted to squelch rumors,” said Buttery. McMicken, though, has accused the city manager of trying to discredit her and her husband Brian. Buttery denies any attempt to “defame her” and maintains he has tried to repeatedly set the record straight.

In the last week or so, a virtual standoff has occurred. In addition, some concerns have been raised about the easement agreements themselves and whether all paper work has been properly signed and executed; the arrangement the city has with certain business owners and why the city is getting so involved in overseeing the situation. Some business patrons, meanwhile, are confused over the signs. Other business operators though, say they want to stay out of the verbal gunfire related to the parking showdown.

Buttery conceded that several council members want to see this feud reach an amicable ending. “They want to see if I can seek a solution,” he said. The city manager last week said he would agree to take down the two hour parking signs, if other businesses, such as Summit, agree to not tie up so many parking lot spots by their employees, especially near Curves. “That seems like a reasonable solution,” said the city manager. McMicken though, has showed no signs of throwing in the towel, and is questioning the way the city does business. Moreover, she doesn’t believe the city is abiding by an easement agreement made with the owners of her property.

A great parking arrangement

Despite this feud, Buttery argues that you can’t argue with success. “It really has been a win-win for everyone,” in describing the central business lots, an outgrowth of talk regarding a highway bypass in the early 1990s. Although funding fell through for a highway bypass route, originally proposed near the current Wal-Mart store site, he said the state opted to finance major improvement plans for downtown Woodland Park.

Major funding was offered for the development of central business lots directly behind a plethora of shops, restaurants and bars. The main catch was that all public parking along U.S. Hwy 24 had to be eliminated, according to Buttery. The business operators signed easement agreements with the city, giving Woodland Park the right to control the area and maintain the lots. The city also paved the lots and did curb, gutter and drainage work. The business owners then were required to handle such matters as trash removal.

Another benefit for the property owner is that they aren’t assessed any taxes on this part of their land and would still legally own the dirt. Compared to the parking arrangement in other towns, such as Manitou Springs, the arrangement has been touted as a major success. But the arrangement may not be able to survive Parking-gate, the latest feud to hit the main downtown core. Two years ago, some business operators feuded over plans for a major wine tasting coalition, then last year flood woes became the main focus. And now, it’s parking-gate.

“I thought our wine wars were bad, but that is nothing compared to parking wars,” quipped one business owner.