Waynesville leaders will vote this month on whether to loosen town guidelines governing growth.

A special task force spent the past 18 months reviewing the town’s development standards and recommending changes. The town’s land-use plan was heralded for its smart growth principles when it was passed in 2003, but developers have repeatedly complained the standards were too arduous and confusing, prompting the task force review.

The task force, which includes development and real estate interests, presented its recommendations to the town board at its last meeting, but aldermen elected to take some extra time to consider the measures.

Long at the center of contention have been the town’s parking regulations. For new commercial buildings, parking lots must go to the side or rear — rather than in front — of the building.

The concept promotes a boulevard aesthetic in the town’s commercial districts, advancing the goal of making Waynesville a more walkable, visually-appealing town, said the Lawrence Group, consultants who helped the town craft the new ordinances.

The idea is to turn streets now fronted by parking lots into tree-lined avenues and store façades that will provide a more welcoming entrance into the town.

In the new regulations, however, there is a provision for allowing limited parking in front of buildings in certain commercial districts. But nailing down the specifics of just how and when that option can be invoked has been the subject of some ire over the last year as the new standards were discussed.

“That was probably our biggest friction point with developers was the parking in front,” said Paul Benson, Waynesville’s planning director. In the new regulations though, Benson pointed out “there are a lot of variables in parking patterns now.”

Benson presented aldermen with a number of different scenarios that could crop up under the new guidelines, trying to illustrate what the more relaxed rules would look like for real businesses.

For big-box stores like Wal-Mart, they could have up to 150 spaces in front, while large retailers with a slightly diminished footprint, like Best Buy, would only be allowed around 25 spaces in front. Smaller stores such as CVS or banks would only get about eight front spaces under new regulations.

Among some members of the task force, this compromise didn’t always meet a positive response.

“It doesn’t help that much,” Joe Taylor said of the front-parking concessions in the updated guidelines. Taylor, of Taylor Ford dealership in Waynesville, was on the steering committee and was an outspoken advocate of allowing parking in front.

He said the committee suggested the provision for front parking to give potential developers a break in otherwise tight regulations. The problem, he said, is that it doesn’t quite do what they’d originally envisioned.

Under the new wording, up to 50 percent of the minimum parking required for the stores under the town’s ordinance could go in front.

But the minimum number of parking spots required for a store is far less than any store would actually have.

“We don’t require a lot of parking. They [developers] usually want almost three times as much as we want,” said Benson.

Taylor said the required minimum is so small, that allowing 50 percent of that to go in front doesn’t do much.

“It takes the benefit of it away unless it’s a real large store,” Taylor said.

Though aldermen could have voted to adopt — or reject — the updated rules after the public hearing in March, board members all said they wanted just a little more time to mull over the proposals and give the public one last chance to weigh in.

And in the mean time, Benson has proposed a new option for the contentious front parking issue: special use permits, which would give developers with legitimate parking gripes a way to talk about it with planners.

By allowing special use permitting, said Benson, the board of adjustment would be able to hear pleas from business owners and builders on a case-by-case basis, judging them against a set of standards that complement the parking compromises already reached.

Under this recommendation, if a site meets one of several requirements — it has tricky terrain that governs where the building can sit or the business is looking to join with others and create a courtyard parking atmosphere, among others — the board would be able to give them some leeway.

In the end, the aldermen all said they wanted to reach a set of standards that are best for both the town residents and businesses.

“I’m a firm believer in compromise and finding the best compromise for this community. I want to maintain what is best for Waynesville and I believe we can do that,” said Alderwoman Libba Feicther.

For his part, Mayor Gavin Brown said that, after months of negotiation and debate, he’s ready to get the changes to the land-use plan out of discussion and on the books.

“I think the process has been more than democratic,” said Brown, and now it’s time to take that democratic effort and translate it into real, working guidelines that will hopefully lead the town into a better, more beautiful future.

Transportation experts and town leaders plan to meet this week in Franklin to consider whether it’s feasible to turn one-way Main and Palmer streets into two-way roads.

As in many small mountain towns, visitors to Franklin find themselves motoring around a large roundabout of sorts. That’s a problem in Sylva, too, and for storeowners in these towns who feel they only get one shot at attracting potential new customers.

There is a significant difference, however, about this Macon County town that sets it apart from its neighbors: downtown Franklin saddles a steep hill. Given the limited parking, motorists are sometimes forced to hike a fair distance to their destinations. Only the truly determined are usually willing to hike uphill to get there.

Do something please, but just don’t add parallel parking to the problem, said Ellen Jenkins, the new owner of Primrose Lane, a gift store on Main Street. Jenkins fears parallel parking would reduce the number of already-limited spaces available in front of her store.

“But I would love to see it two way,” the shop owner said.

A fix won’t be easy, Franklin Town Planner Mike Grubberman said last week.

“There’s quite a bit involved,” he said.

Such as feeding the traffic into the main highway corridors of U.S. 441, U.S. 64 and N.C. 28. The Little Tennessee River also bounds the town, limiting how and where traffic could be siphoned in and out of Franklin.

“You can’t just concentrate on Main Street,” Grubberman said.

The town planner also recognizes parallel parking probably isn’t in Franklin’s future, even though it would only reduce the number of spaces available by one, he said.

“But that seems to be a go-to-guns issue,” Grubberman said.

Suzanne Harouff, who has lived in Macon County since the late 1970s and owns Books Unlimited on East Main Street, said the road in front has been one way as long as she can remember.

In Franklin, both Main and Palmer streets are one way but two lanes. Additionally, parking is available on either side of Main Street, though large vehicles actually jut into the road.

Harouff said she would like to see the town explore options. She did express concern about the large hill that marks the climb into downtown. In winter, Harouff said the hill often becomes dangerously slick, a safety problem that could be compounded in bad weather.

Sheryl Rudd, just that morning, said she had fussed at her husband, Dieter Kuhn, for leaving a vehicle parked for too long outside their Sylva business. The loading of 150-pound kegs was finished, and Rudd wanted him to move the vehicle promptly so customers could make their way inside.

If, however, the couple had gotten a $50 citation for parking more than the 30 minutes allowed outside Heinzelmannchen Brewery on Mill Street, Rudd told town commissioners last week she’d have paid willingly. The new parking ordinance is working great, and should continue and, possibly, even be extended to include other streets in Sylva, Rudd said.

Rudd’s comments come a couple of weeks before commissioners will hold an official public hearing to get feedback such as this on the town’s parking ordinance. They plan to go back into the original ordinance as passed this summer and add key language inadvertently left out that rendered it unenforceable, and include East Jackson Street in the sections of town it covers.

Parking spillover from the ban has created problems for City Lights Bookstore on East Jackson Street.

The ordinance was originally designed to ban business owners on Main and Mill streets from taking up precious parking spaces in front of downtown businesses. Loading and unloading is OK.

R.O. Vance, a longtime hardware owner on Main Street, almost was included in the proposed revised ordinance by name as commissioners tried to ferret out the best method of allowing him come and go freely on appliance-repair calls.

As the clock ticked and the board continued dissecting the matter in ever-increasing detail and possible convolutions, Commissioner Christina Matheson finally burst into laughter. At least everyone would be able to tell she and her fellow board members truly care about the people in town, Matheson said, amused.

And where they park.

Vance didn’t end up named in the ordinance. Instead, Town Attorney Eric Ridenour, in a burst of legal razzle-dazzle, wrote a resolution on the spot designating a former police-car spot on a nearby side street to Main Street as the new R.O. Vance Memorial Parking Space. The resolution will be considered for vote at the next board meeting.

That should prevent Vance’s fellow business owners from calling and complaining that the hardware owner has been parking in the designated police spot, which the police have said they didn’t need anyhow, Commissioner Harold Hensley said. Vance had been parking there because he didn’t want to take up a Main Street parking space.

In the “Oh, oops” category this week we have the town of Sylva, which, after extensive review, work and dispute ordered police officers this summer to begin ticketing business owners and their employees who take up precious parking spaces on Main and Mill streets.

Leave your vehicles elsewhere, they were told, or pay a $50 citation penalty. Two or three downtown workers were indeed ticketed by police after business owners ratted out fellow business owners for breaking the law. Feelings ran high.

There’s one small problem.

A key paragraph, the one specifying business owners and their employees can’t park on Main and Mill streets, wasn’t included in the ordinance passed, though plenty of other legalese was.

Town Attorney Eric Ridenour, during a town board meeting last week, sharpened his sword and committed public hara-kiri, complete with obsequious apologies for making the mistake.

But, interestingly, unless you were in the know already — or cared to stay afterward and grill the town’s commissioners and attorney — it was impossible to comprehend what had taken place during that portion of the meeting. Commissioners, and Ridenour, didn’t spell out what exactly had doomed their new ordinance and rendered it unenforceable. Clearly, however, everyone on the board had the head’s up before the situation went — technically, at least, if ever so obscurely and mysteriously — before the public.

Commissioners set a date for another hearing to pass a no-parking ordinance. Complete, they hope this time, with the key clause about the people targeted.

“You’re not going to print that?” Ridenour asked when queried after the meeting about what they’d all been talking about in such vague terms.

After explaining the situation, the attorney said he was deeply embarrassed by the mistake. In clarifying the paragraph during the draft process, the key language was inadvertently eliminated in the final version. Ridenour said he plans to personally repay business owners who were fined. That includes the penalty assessed to Dodie Allen, an auctioneer and perennial Republican state House candidate, who protested vigorously after being ticketed when she left her brightly painted “Follow Me to Victory” van parked outside her Main Street store.

Actually, another individual in town anonymously paid Allen’s citation, so Ridenour plans to reimburse them instead.

It was Allen’s protests that unveiled the error, Ridenour said. Allen took her complaints to The Sylva Herald, and owner Steve Gray reviewed the ordinance (as journalists should but rarely actually do) and discovered it applied to absolutely nobody, including Allen. He informed Ridenour of the oversight.

Fix a problem, create a new one. That’s how the cookie has crumbled lately in Sylva.

When the town board ordered business owners and their employees to keep their cars out of coveted parking spaces on Main and Mill streets so shoppers could frequent shops, the parking problems shifted to nearby side streets.

This, of course, was before Sylva town commissioners received the startling news they’d passed an unenforceable ordinance (see accompanying article). But, since they plan to correct that booboo soon, business owners in the newly congested parking area are left wondering what can be done to help them out, too.

Parking has become a particular issue in front of City Lights Bookstore, an independent bookseller on East Jackson Street. Chris Wilcox said he’s seeing downtown employees fill the limited number of spaces available in front of the bookstore. He and his employees park at the nearby Methodist Church, and they are trying to let customers know that they can park there, too, except during church events.

Town commissioners aren’t unsympathetic. They’ve acknowledged during the past two meetings that City Lights and other side-street enterprises are getting parking fallout from the new ordinance, passed (well, passed but unenforceable) this summer.

It looks like side streets could be added to the ordinance, or, as it were, Ordinance Take 2. Commissioners seem loath to rush into things. Once burned, twice shy?

•••

“I know parking is a very sensitive issue,” Reuben Moore, a division operations engineer for the state Department of Transportation, astutely noted at last week’s town board meeting.

This before telling commissioners the parking on Main Street is creating some visual danger at crosswalks. As in, motorists can’t always see pedestrians stepping off onto crosswalks.

Additionally, there are simply too many crosswalks in Sylva, Moore told commissioners.

“We really have crosswalks that are on top of one another,” he said.

Commissioner Harold Hensley continued to push for a “please-don’t-run-over-the-pedestrians” sign at the end of Main Street. This where two lanes drop to one, and cars jockey for position — all while unaware pedestrians attempt to pass from one side of the street to another, via a crosswalk.

After a bit of minor and friendly negotiating, the town agreed to eliminate one parking space in return for the transportation department putting up a warning sign. That will make it easier, Moore said, for motorists to see pedestrians.

Additionally, a committee will be formed to review the overall crosswalk dilemma.

Dodie Allen might be an unlikely hero for those business owners and downtown employees in Sylva who believe a new parking ordinance impairs their ability to make a living.

The Sylva town board voted unanimously to adopt a new parking ordinance that will fine downtown employees and business owners if they park on Main or Mill streets — a move aimed at alleviating the parking pinch downtown during commercial hours.

The new ordinance says that downtown employees and business owners cannot park on the one-way portions of Main or Mill streets or in the Old Ritz Theater parking lot between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m., Monday through Saturday. The ordinance will be aired at a public hearing 9 a.m. July 15 at the Sylva Town Building.

The town of Highlands has a similar ordinance barring employees from parking on Main Street. According to town officials, the policy has worked well, but its enforcement depends heavily on businesses to point out regular offenders.

Sylva’s new ordinance comes as part of a larger attempt to address the lack of customer parking downtown. Violating the new ordinance would result in a $50 fine.

The town of Sylva plans to impose a new parking law to stop shop owners and employees from taking up customer parking on Main Street.

While most towns in the region face the same challenge — what to do about downtown workers monopolizing coveted parking spaces — only Highlands has tried to legislate a solution so far.

Highlands has an ordinance barring employees from parking on Main Street, a model Sylva now wants to emulate.

The new ordinance comes as part of a larger attempt to fix the parking pinch in downtown Sylva, which has shop owners on Mill and Main streets infuriated by the lack of available customer parking during peak business hours.

To help alleviate the problem, the town board recently decided to rent a commercial lot near the intersection of Mill and Main and designate it for free public parking.

It will provide between 30 and 40 additional parking spaces downtown, but the board felt it needed to go a step further.

Last week, the town’s attorney Eric Ridenour offered the board a first draft of the ordinance, which would bar employees of downtown businesses from on-street parking along the one-way portions of Mill and Main streets.

Ridenour told the board that Highlands’ version of the ordinance includes an exception for service-oriented businesses like real estate offices, which need to keep their vehicles close to serve customers.

Board Member Sarah Graham said she didn’t see the need to make exceptions, particularly given the town’s investment in leasing an additional lot.

“We should free up as many spaces downtown as possible,” said Graham.

Board Member Danny Allen agreed.

“The town (now) has three parking lots, and they’re all in close proximity to one end of town,” Allen said. “It’s not going to require but a hop and a skip for them.”

The board considered a provision that would reserve spots in the newly leased lot for businesses willing to pay a rental fee.

That suggestion didn’t thrill Sylva Police Chief Jeff Jamison, who said it would be difficult to enforce.

“We’re going to be policing that lot as well as Main Street. Is that what I’m hearing?” Jamison asked. “That’s going to be difficult folks.”

The board ultimately struck the idea from the draft ordinance.

Enforcement a challenge

Ridenour said the ordinance would rely heavily on the cooperation of business owners to report violations to the Sylva police, since the department doesn’t have any staff dedicated to parking enforcement.

“The way I drafted it is in the hope that our downtown business owners will work as our eyes and ears,” said Ridenour.

The town not only lacks a dedicated parking cop, but enforcement would hinge on police officers’ ability to visually recognize the vehicles of downtown workers. If a worker’s car is indeed spotted in a parking space that’s off-limits to them, another challenge is determining whether that employee is on their shift — or happens to be shopping downtown on their day off. The board plans to hold a public hearing on the ordinance at its second meeting in July.

Sylva is not alone in confronting the issue of employees and business owners parking in spots that were meant for their customers. Waynesville’s Town Manager Lee Galloway said the problem is ubiquitous.

“I’ve worked in six towns, and I don’t think there’s one that didn’t have the same issue,” Galloway said.

Galloway recalled a running joke in Rockingham about a jeweler named Fox.

“Why does Mr. Fox park right in front of his business? Because he can’t get his car inside,” Galloway said.

Galloway said Waynesville has addressed the issue by adding more public parking –– in particular a large parking deck a block off Main Street –– and by enforcing three-hour parking limits on Main Street.

In addition, the Downtown Waynesville Association has taken on the responsibility of communicating with business owners about the need to keep customer parking free.

“We’ve tried to handle it amongst ourselves,” said Buffy Messer, the downtown association’s director. “I think the merchants try to communicate with their neighbors. We don’t mind if someone parks all day as long as they’re spending money.”

Bryson City has the same problem, especially during the high season, but Town Manager Larry Callicutt said thus far no one has suggested drafting an ordinance to confront it.

“I’m not sure there’s a town where that doesn’t happen,” said Callicutt. “They’ve always complained about it, but it’s not gotten to the point that anyone’s taken action on it.”

Galloway said he understands merchants’ anger over the issue.

“You have to turn those spots over to protect your merchants,” Galloway said. “I understand their frustration.”

Years of complaining by Sylva merchants that there isn’t enough parking downtown has spurred the Sylva town board to lease a private parking lot near the intersection of Mill and Main Streets.

The board voted 4 to 1 to lease the Sammy Cogdill parking lot for $400 per month in order to alleviate a perceived parking crunch and to address concerns about the safety of oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots.

The ongoing debate over parking in downtown Sylva resurfaced in May when Western Carolina University student Thaddeus Huff published the findings of a downtown parking study he conducted as part of his graduate research. His conclusion contested the idea that there was a parking shortage in Sylva. Huff’s study found there were plenty of spaces in the greater downtown area — people just weren’t willing to walk more than a block to their destinations.

Huff’s study did identify the south end of Main Street as the area most in need of parking, and he suggested encouraging people to park in other parts of town as a solution.

Many local merchants, however, believed that Huff’s study — which was conducted in March — didn’t take into account congestion during the most heavily trafficked time of year or during festival weekends. They cited anecdotal evidence that customers routinely struggle to find parking at key times of day.

The town board’s vote to rent the Cogdill lot for a year should put the discussion to rest.

“It’s an opportunity for us to see if it makes an impact,” said Town Commissioner Chris Matheson.

Matheson said her vote was based as much on safety concerns as on the lack of available parking spaces downtown. Matheson said oversized vehicles parking in diagonal spots make Main Street dangerous.

“If you’re on the right side of one of those vehicles, you’re backing into an abyss,” Matheson said.

Board Member Ray Lewis was the only dissenting vote. Lewis objected to the notion of the town committing more money to downtown Sylva and suggested the money to lease the Cogdill lot should come out of the town’s annual $12,000 allocation to the Downtown Sylva Association.

Lewis’s stance on the subject may foreshadow a point of contention in the upcoming budget discussions. Town financial support of DSA has been controversial each of the past four years during budget time.

Mayor Maurice Moody said parking and DSA funding were separate issues, however.

“I think those are two separate issues and the majority of the board wants to leave DSA funding at $12,000 where its has been for the past few years,” Moody said.

The board also discussed other ways to alleviate the parking shortage in Sylva, including the option of adopting a parking ordinance similar to one in the town of Highlands that prohibits merchants and their employees from parking on the Main Street during business hours. Another alternative would see the town rent some of the spaces in the Cogdill lot to businesses that wanted to reserve spaces for their employees.

All of those discussions were informal. Moody confirmed that the Cogdill lot would be open to the public July 1 and that the bulk of the spots would be used for additional free parking.

A parking study of downtown Sylva conducted by a Western Carolina University graduate student has gotten local merchants talking and left the town board facing a puzzle.

For years downtown merchants have complained that the lack of available parking for customers hurts their businesses. But the study concludes that the town’s some 600 existing places are enough.

Thaddeus Huff –– a graduate student in public administration in his last semester at WCU –– authored the study as his final research topic for his professor, Dr. Chris Cooper. Huff circulated 50 surveys to business owners in the Downtown Sylva Association asking five basic questions about their views on parking downtown. The responses showed that 65 percent of the business owners felt there wasn’t enough parking for customers, and 69 percent felt there wasn’t enough parking for employees in downtown.

In March, Huff followed up the survey with a study of the supply and demand of parking in each of the downtown’s eight blocks, counting the number of spaces and the occupancy rate in each block four different times of day on four separate days.

The findings were surprising. Only three blocks downtown in the areas of Mill and Main streets closest to their intersection routinely had more than 70 percent of their parking spaces utilized at a given time of day.

Huff’s summary of the survey reframed the discussion about parking in downtown Sylva as having more to do with how far people are willing to walk from available spaces to their destinations.

“Given that the supply, in this case, is not the problem, the issue seems to be the proximity to certain locations for drivers,” Huff concludes in the study. “The answer is not more parking spaces. Even with no access to private lots, an argument could be made there is plenty of parking to meet the demand given the time periods the counts were conducted in.”

But tell that to the merchants who get phone calls from customers in their cars asking if they can get curbside service because they’ve already circled past the store three times.

Sarella Jackson, an employee of Harrah’s Cherokee Casino, testified to that as she walked out of Annie’s Bakery on Monday.

“Most of the time, parking is a problem. It’s relatively hard to find parking close to the building at lunch time,” Jackson said.

She said it is not uncommon for her to circle the block two or three times before she finds a spot.

Annie Ritota, who opened Annie’s Bakery eight years ago, winces when she hears customers complaining about parking.

“We do have a problem on this end of town,” Ritota said.

A parking solution discussed in the past is for the town to purchase or lease a vacant private lot on the prime stretch of Main Street, the former Dodge dealer lot owned by Sam Cogdill.

Ritota said she would support the town leasing or buying the lot, although she wasn’t 100 percent sure it would solve the problem. Instead, Ritota suggested limiting how long people could occupy a prime downtown spots.

“Obviously that lot would be very helpful,” Ritota said. “But I’ve always said maybe if we went back to paid parking so people could come and go, people wouldn’t stay all day.”

Huff has also taken planning courses, and he said from a planning perspective, the town would ideally put the empty car lot owned by Cogdill to some use because vacant lots in a downtown send the wrong message.

But both Mayor Maurice Moody and Commissioner Sarah Graham said they would have a hard time spending the town’s money on parking when it was facing a very tight budget this year.

“Right now we’re paying for a pedestrian plan and directional signage, and I’d like to see those play out before we commit to another expense in parking,” Graham said.

Sheryl Rudd, co-owner of Heinzelmannchen said Mill Street’s problem is almost certainly the result of too many merchants and their employees occupying the handful of prime on-street spots readily accessible to customers.

The result is infuriating for Rudd.

“We lose business,” she said.

Rudd attended the town board meeting where Huff presented his findings and said she appreciated the information but would like to have seen the results of a similar study conducted during the high part of the tourist season.

Rudd said she favors the idea of the town leasing the Cogdill lot and either the Downtown Sylva Association or merchants reimbursing the town for a particular number of designated spaces.

Huff, who lives in Asheville, said most of the studies he used as models dealt with bigger towns. But he still thinks Sylva’s free parking could be part of the problem.

“If you give out free pizza, there’s never enough pizza,” Huff said.

Huff recommended a number of measures that could alleviate some of the strain the merchants are feeling around parking. He advocates better signage to steer people to the town’s public lots. He also recommends a firm policy against employees parking in spots for customers, and reviewing the idea of metered parking on Main Street.

The issue of downtown employees taking up prime on-street spots in front of businesses has been a topic of heated discussion the past, and a number of downtown business owners agree that it is a starting point for the discussion.

Recently one downtown merchant anonymously left flyers on car windows that read, “Dear customers. I work downtown. I took your parking space and you, the customer, had to search for parking.”

Steve Dennis, owner of Hollifield Jewelers, also thinks employees parking on Main Street all day are a large part of the issue.

“The enforcement needs to be addressed in terms of people staying a long period of time,” Dennis said. “You don’t need to drive up and walk straight into your job.”

Mayor Moody said he needed to study the results of Huff’s project in more detail before he responded to it directly.

“I think we all need more time to look at it closely,” Moody said.

Huff agreed the same type of parking count he conducted should be repeated during the high tourist season and on a festival week, but he really believes the town has to look at the parking issue holistically and not a simple shortage of open parking spaces.

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