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Council to consider steeper penalties for parking ordinance violations Thursday

BUCKHANNON – Parking regulations in the City of Buckhannon may once again be amended following several months of complaints from downtown business owners aired at a series of Consolidated Public Works meetings.

According to its agenda, at its meeting at 7 p.m. Thursday at city hall, Buckhannon City Council is set to consider the first reading of an ordinance that would enhance the penalties for violating the city’s two-hour parking policy.

The major changes to the current parking ordinances on the books are likely to include enhanced fines for second and third offenses as well as a stipulation that a violator of the two-hour free parking policy will receive only one warning period instead of two warnings within a 24-month time-frame, which is what current municipal laws state.

Council pored over a draft ordinance penned by city attorney Tom O’Neill at its most recent meeting Oct. 1 and suggested a number of revisions they’d like to see made to the draft.

At the outset of the Oct. 1 discussion, O’Neill explained that the new ordinance, Ordinance 447 would amend and re-enact three separate parking ordinances currently on the books, including Ordinances 409, 422 and 435.

“This would only deal with enforcement of the existing parking regulations,” O’Neill told council. “It doesn’t change the parking regulations themselves; it only sets different requirements with respect to enforcement.”

One of the main changes is that Ordinance 447 would require only one warning prior to issuing a $25 citation on first offense.

“No subsequent warning is required prior to the issuance of a citation,” O’Neill said. (Previous ordinances required that the city issue two warnings prior to issuing a citation and that the warnings could begin again after a 24-month period had elapsed.)

“It also provides … that the clock starts running on your second offense at the moment the first warning is issued,” O’Neill explained. “In other words, if you get a warning and your car is still there two hours later, you’re liable to receive a citation, but a person would have to be parked in a spot for four hours before they would have a citation issued.”

Councilman CJ Rylands asked about a previous ruling in which a municipal judge had stated that the city should wait two weeks after a warning before a citation can be issued “because there was no period of time for the person to receive it.”

O’Neill said he’d need to converse with municipal judge Helen Echard about that.

“The notice is like any other criminal violation — you’re not entitled to a warning,” O’Neill said. “The city is granting you the privilege of a receiving a warning for the first offense. If there was a suggestion that the city had to wait … under this new ordinance language… two weeks to issue a citation, I would disagree with that strenuously.”

Councilman David Thomas said council should get that ironed out before voting on a new parking ordinance.

Regarding other changes, Rylands and mayor Robbie Skinner said they’d like to see the fine stepped up for each subsequent violation of the parking regulations, rather than issuing a $25 citation on the first and every other subsequent offense.

“I would advocate that we have to step this penalty up,” Rylands said. “There’s got to be some way to impact these people that have chosen not to abide by this policy.”

O’Neill suggested setting the penalty at $25 for the first offense after the initial warning; $50 for the second citation; and $100 for the third or subsequent offense. The city attorney recommended the city dispense with the requirement that the clock for repeat offenders “resets” after 24 months, a requirement of one of the current parking ordinances.

“I think you’re not entitled to a new warning after 24 months,” O’Neill said. “I’m not sure I understand the rationale behind that.”

City recorder Randy Sanders replied, “There’s really not.”

Rylands – who played a major part, along with city architect Bryson VanNostrand in trying to craft an ordinance that would not punish tourists and visitors to the area –said city officials were trying to make an effort to be “non-punitive” in general.

“We were trying to be cognizant that once in a while, a business owner might pull up front to unload something, and there’s a crisis, and they get caught up and forget to move their vehicle,” Rylands responded.

O’Neill highlighted the fact that the parking enforcement officer has discretion regarding warnings and citations and consider circumstances surrounding the violation.

Skinner and Rylands agreed that no matter how city officials tweak parking regulations, if they’re not being enforced consistently, violations will continue to happen.

“A large portion of the discussion [we had in Consolidated Board meetings] was about consistent enforcement,” Skinner said. “No matter what we put on paper, if we don’t have it consistently enforced out there, it’s not worth the paper it’s written on if it can’t be carried through.”

O’Neill advised council that one ordinance on the books now enables them to recruit “volunteer” parking enforcement officers.

“I’m not sure you want to open this can of worms, but I advise you that it is already on the books that the city can recruit volunteer parking enforcement officers who can be trained and then deputized to enforce the parking ordinance,” the city attorney said.

O’Neill also explained that the revised ordinance he’ll bring to council’s Oct. 15 meeting will include a passage stating the regulations prohibit moving one’s vehicle across the road or down the street to ‘reset’ the two-hour time frame. The city attorney said he understood that when chronic violators park in front of certain business’s storefront for hours, it can result in a loss of revenue for the business owner.

Councilman Jack Reger said he was perplexed.

“What do other communities do that have a similar plan?” Reger asked. “I’m just thinking about the logistics of the recordkeeping.”

O’Neill responded by saying, “I have a feeling that most other communities do not dedicate the amount of time and attention to this issue that this community does.”

Reger said the whole process seemed “cumbersome.”

“I understand the intent behind the ordinance and being visitor-friendly but practically speaking, I’m going to be up front – I would hate to be the person trying to track all this information,” he said.

Council will consider the ordinance revised with members’ suggestions at the Oct. 15 meeting.

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