Victims of a 'unique' Baltimore parking problem fight the law, and the law wins

City Paper

Councilwoman Mary Pat Clarke (14th District) thinks it might take an act of Congress to adjust Baltimore’s parking laws.

 This, anyway, was the impression left by an exchange between veteran city councilmembers during the Nov. 17 meeting. Clarke submitted a resolution, 14-0197R, calling for state action to solve a vexing constituent issue.

“It’s a long story. It has been suggested that the federal government controls this law,” Clarke told her colleagues. “We’ve started a search of the archives to take it to the Congress of the United States.”

Councilwoman Rochelle “Rikki” Spector (5th District) rose to say that she, too, had attempted a similar feat in the past, on behalf of unfairly ticketed constituents in her own district. “I have been down this road also the wrong way,” Spector said. 

In Baltimore, constituent service is usually about crime, trash, or parking, and sometimes water bills. But in this case, the parking problem is not about the lack of space, as it is in Little Italy, Federal Hill, and Canton. The problem is one of convenience, and of common sense. The latest flash point is the 4200 block of Wickford Road, in the quiet Roland Park enclave known as Keswick. The narrow road runs two ways with parking on both sides. In order for residents to leave room in the lane for motorists, they park with their wheels beyond the “curb,” which, on that road and others like it, is more of a ramped gutter. This is a violation. They also sometimes pull over to the left, instead of the right, to get a space in front of their homes. Turning around is next to impossible on the road, as there are no driveways. Going around the block is difficult, Clarke said: it’s “a very very long block.”

Facing against traffic is also a violation.

Out of nowhere, in the wee small hours of the morning, residents have been ticketed, Clarke said, depicting the parking enforcement agents as thieves in the night.

Privately, as his two colleagues spoke, Councilman Bill Henry (4th District) allowed that he, too, had taken a swing at the issue, with nothing to show for it.

The controlling law is, in fact, a state law, 21–1004:

“. . . [A] vehicle that is stopped or parked on a one­way roadway shall be stopped or parked parallel to the curb or edge of the roadway, in the direction of authorized traffic movement, with:

(1) Its right hand wheels within 12 inches of the right hand curb or edge of the roadway; or

(2) Its left hand wheels within 12 inches of the left hand curb or edge of the roadway.”

The city, and its City Council, cannot change its own parking ordinances, so it’s on the council to get the state legislative delegation to put in a bill that would amend state parking law with a narrowly written exception. That has failed at least twice so far, perhaps because state legislators have bigger fish to fry. But with resolution 14-0197R, the council is trying again. At the council meeting, the resolution is sent to the Use and Transportation Committee. A Department of Transportation (DOT) report on the matter is due Dec. 20.

“We’ve had this problem in several areas in the city,” Henry said.

Indeed. The Mount Washington Google group has on occasion lit up with complaints. In the summer of 2013 there was a spate of tickets on the 5700 blocks of Oakshire and Ridgedale, and then a spate of messages summoning Spector, who reportedly attended a meeting of the Mount Washington Improvement Association in January, to address it.

“Rikki Spector pretty much knuckled under immediately,” reports Mount Washington resident Daniel Wylie. “She just said that’s the way it is, and you have to live with it.”

This is an inconvenience, Wylie says, as residents for the past 50 years have been parking a bit over the curb to make way for emergency vehicles. He says the sidewalks are not entirely blocked, but the presence of vehicles on them narrows the way to about 18-20 inches. That’s too neighborly a squeeze for dog walkers passing in opposite directions, and so new residents “get pissy,” Wylie says. “They call parking enforcement. They’re self funding so they’re not gonna say no.”

Wylie says several thousand dollars of tickets were issued on his block and one nearby. “My ticket was $77. For parking on the sidewalk in front of my house,” he says. He allows that his old pickup might have been facing the wrong way as well.

Clarke’s resolution asks for “state action.” It says the state law “makes sense in most places at most times.” But “Baltimore should have the ability to address these safety concerns by allowing left-side parking on designated streets where parking on both sides of the street is impossible or would require motorists to make dangerous 3-point or U- turns that block busy intersections and travel lanes in order to reverse direction.”

One might ask, if most everyone agrees that the people parking contrary to the law are, in fact, doing no harm, then why can’t the City Council, or the mayor, simply ask the boss of the parking bureau to instruct parking enforcement personnel to refrain from ticketing those vehicles for those infractions on those specific blocks?

“We must ticket if it is a clear violation and we receive complaints through the 3-1-1system or any other source,” Department of Transportation spokeswoman Adrienne Barnes says in an email. “We must abide by the law to cite violations as we observe them. We do not have much wiggle room to use discretion, but must obey the law as written.” 

Unlike, say, the Board of Municipal Zoning Appeals or (until recently) the Liquor Board, parking enforcers cannot bend the law like a pipe cleaner to conform to the whims of favored appellants.

Changing the law would appear to be within the purview of the City Council, which exists in order to make the laws of the city. Yet that option is apparently null as well.

As is—so far at least—persuading the state legislature to do so.

“I was in Annapolis and couldn’t get it passed,” Clarke says in a subsequent phone call. “[Spector] was in Annapolis and couldn’t get it passed. So we’ll go to Congress. We’ll go to the U.N. It doesn’t matter. It’s ridiculous.”

City Paper went to the 4200 block of Wickford. It is a lovely street, lined with trees, curving gently amid big houses topped with slate roofs.

A dark blue Honda pulls up and parks the wrong way. The slight woman inside gathers a handful of bags. Asked if she’d like to talk about parking, she says, “Ha!”

“I’m parked illegally,” Mary Klein states defiantly before agreeing to an interview. She stows her things and arranges the junk mail that’s been shoved through the slot in her door, quiets her chocolate lab, and returns to the granite front porch and a bistro table.

The issue interests her, she says, “because I just got a ticket. $31. Would you like to see it?”

She retrieves the ticket. It says she was parked facing the wrong way, just like she is now, and she was ticketed because of a “complaint.”

“This is the second or third one I’ve gotten,” Klein says.

She moved here in 2001 and got her first ticket in 2007. That’s when it started, she says. “People lived here for years and years and never got a ticket.”

The way Klein sometimes parks is pretty common, she says. The car right behind hers is parked the same way. There’s another on the block also.

Klein says she does this because she usually comes from Overhill Road, which sets her running south on Wickford. If she were coming north from University Parkway she’d be on the right side of the street. “Sometimes I do go down the alley and come back the other way,” she says.

There is an alley?

Yes, Klein says. And many of the stately brick houses have garages on it, as one would expect: “But the garages are too small to get your car in. I guess I could get mine in.”

She says she got another ticket last month before this third one.

She doesn’t believe the tickets result from complaints. “Who would?” she says. “Everyone does it.”

The street sees very little traffic other than residents, Klein says, and people drive very slowly, negating concerns about the practice being dangerous.

“I don’t understand what difference it makes to anybody,” Klein says. “What side. It’s not impeding traffic.”

“It’s like, ‘do you need money that badly?’ C’mon! It’s not as if there isn’t real crime.”

A few days later Councilwoman Spector is on the phone. “It can’t be legislatively resolved,” she says. “At some point you have to be frank with your constituents.”

Spector again says parking laws are federally governed and that changing them would present a safety issue. She says councilmembers just have to tell people who complain to suck it up and park the right way or face the occasional ticket.

“Mary Pat knows the answer, I know the answer. And I don’t keep it a secret,” Spector says. “You can’t keep promising your constituents Arpège [perfume] then give them toilet water. You can’t keep grand-standing.”

Then, Spector says she is going to try again anyway.

“I’m going to go to a higher authority and get back to you,” Spector says, pledging to check with the experts at the Maryland Association of Counties (MACo).

A few days after that, Spector forwards emails from MACo and the Baltimore Department of Transportation’s General Counsel, Barbara Zektick, who says that the State Highway Administration “and City DOT agree that it does not appear that any Federal law preempts the state from amending this law.”

Congressman Elijah Cummings, in other words, can relax and focus on less pressing matters.

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