Chesterfield Hills Parking Approved 3-2 After Long Debate

Wednesday, January 6, 2016, 6:37 pm
By: 
Alice Dreger

Above: the area in question as seen this past Monday morning.

Last night, following much debate involving numerous residents of the Chesterfield Hills neighborhood, East Lansing’s City Council voted 3-2 to expand permit-only parking in the area. The vote divided along the same lines as previous 3-2 votes on this Council: Mayor Mark Meadows, Mayor Pro Tem Ruth Beier, and Councilmember Erik Altmann voted in favor; Councilmembers Shanna Draheim and Susan Woods voted against.

As shown in a map provided to Council, the street frontage at issue may only be a few blocks, but the matter ended up involving hundreds of pages correspondence from residents, traffic studies, and legal opinions over process. It also involved well over an hour of contentious debate among neighbors at Council, all centered on the question of whether the plan was needed for the reasons named in the municipal code for permit-only parking: “unnecessary driving [time], traffic congestion, illegal parking, noise, pollution, and strains on interpersonal relationships.”

In the end, the Councilmembers voting in favor said they were doing so because the area residents wanting the parking restrictions had followed the process and more people living on the affected streets had voted in favor than had voted against.

But the Councilmembers voting against, including Chesterfield Hills resident Draheim, said there was no need for this restriction because there is adequate parking on those streets. Draheim—the only Councilmember currently to live on a street with permit-only parking—said her family’s experience is that permit-only parking “is a pain in the butt,” because it makes it difficult to have people visit without serious advance planning involving requests for permits from the City.

The issue dominated written communications received by Council since its last meeting. In his letter to Council, Chesterfield Hills resident Eliot Singer said he was happy he lived on a block with permit-only parking. He wrote, “The arguments for not adopting permit parking appear to be purely ideological.” He argued that safety concerns come from too many parked cars, including blocked sightlines for drivers in an area with children playing, and potential problems for emergency vehicles. (The fire and police departments did not weigh in on this concern.)

In her letter to Council, Sharon Rambo of Chesterfield Parkway said that in her thirty years of residency, she has “never experienced an inability to park on the street except for the seasonal football games.” According to the municipal code, permit-only parking is to be restricted to areas where “a shortage of reasonably available and convenient residential related parking spaces exists.”

Jack Roberts of Chesterfield Parkway presented his own studies in writing, stretching from September 2015 through this month, showing adequate parking. He also spoke at the meeting, reiterating that he thinks the process for approving these plans divides neighbors unnecessarily.

Linda Pivarnik, who lives on a part of Huntington Road just outside the area at issue, wrote to say, “if past performance is an indication of future performance, expanding permit parking to the proposed streets will only serve to have cars move to the streets where there are no restrictions.” City of East Lansing traffic engineer Steve Roach confirmed to Council this could well happen, in which case the residents of Chesterfield Hills may seek to further expand the permit-only area.

Those against the parking restrictions said that the only days one could not find adequate parking were on days of MSU football home games. In his vote in favor of the permitting plan, Councilmember Altmann said he thought the difficulty presented on those seven days a year could be seen as an argument in favor of permit parking.

Ben Fedewa of Chesterfield Parkway said he thought it “strange” that there was even a debate, given that those in favor had followed the process for gaining approval as outlined in the code. He said the near-university neighborhoods have long been in danger of being blighted and that parking restrictions can help prevent this. He told Council, “There was no sane reason to be against” permit-parking restrictions for neighborhoods like this because they create “a nice neighborhood not under attack.”

Fedewa said that expansive development along the Michigan Avenue corridor, including the redevelopment of the Brody complex and plans to build hundreds more apartments nearby, created a “pressure cooker-type development area” and that the restrictions were needed for Chesterfield Hills “to survive.” He said home prices in the area had been falling.

But Kenneth Schwartz of Chesterfield Parkway told Council that, after walking the neighborhood a lot in the last year, “Frankly, I don’t see a parking problem.” He called parking on MSU football home game days “impossible” but said otherwise it was not an issue and that it would be very inconvenient to have to arrange permits for visitors. He called the plan “a solution looking for a problem.”

Jim Fairweather of Kensington Road said he and Schwartz must “walk in different circles” because he finds the situation “terrible.” He said it “feels like we are living in a parking lot,” especially on Kensington. His neighbor Matthew Greenberg agreed, as did Jillian Bogater, who lives with Greenberg. She said she has called PACE many times to have people blocking her driveway towed and that PACE has told her they can’t help unless her driveway is at least fifty percent blocked. As others in favor of the plan did, she named trash, leaf, and snow removal as problems that could be addressed by the permitting system. Roberts challenged her claims about problems with these issues, and she challenged back.

Linda Dunlop of Chesterfield Parkway, a resident of twenty-five years, said she did not get to vote because she had been out of town when the ballots went out, but that she would have voted “no.” She said it was unnecessary. Michael Christensen of Kensington Road, a resident of about seventeen years, was also against the plan. He said that, like Roberts, he had doubts about whether the process as prescribed in the code had been appropriately followed.

Christensen also responded to what he said were “flawed arguments” about safety. He cited studies showing that having a lot of parked cars actually makes areas safer by calming traffic and creating barriers between people on the sidewalk and moving cars in the street. He said that all residents of East Lansing and all residents of Michigan ultimately pay to maintain these streets and that all should have the right to park on them. He objected to “defensive language about invasion” and said the real issue for the proponents of the plan was about who is parking in the neighborhood. He said some people think the parkers are not “the right people.”

Richard Best of Kensington Road disagreed, saying it’s not that he doesn’t think MSU students and others are valuable people, but that there were just too many people parking in the neighborhood for the purposes of walking to MSU and elsewhere. He said that his goal in advocating for the permit-only plan had been to achieve a greater degree of safety and convenience for the whole neighborhood. He told Council, “I’d rather have it that someone parking is someone I know than someone I don’t know.”

Tom Caulder of Chesterfield Parkway said he thought the whole debate was “unnecessary” because the City had never run a proper study to see if there was a problem. He said that Roberts’ own study showed there was not one. He asked why Chesterfield Hills couldn’t use the solution used in other near-university neighborhoods of two-hour parking zones. He said there were people with legal home-business owners in the area—like a psychologist who works from his home—who would have a very hard time under the permit system.

Polly Synk of Chesterfield Parkway, a resident of twelve years, has young children and told Council that her family doesn’t “feel under attack.” She said that the children of the neighborhood walk to school and play out front and “they are fine.” She objected to the plan, saying it would make it difficult to have their babysitters and music teachers come to family homes. She called the plan unnecessary.

Diane Wing of Huntington Road, a member of the Neighborhood Association board, said people in the area had received adequate notice of the plan and adequate opportunity to give input. She said that people who had time to do traffic studies on their own should instead spend their time volunteering to be on the Transportation Commission or volunteering to rewrite the ordinance if they think it doesn’t work. She said the aim was never to discriminate against people.

Sandy Maxwell of Chesterfield Parkway, a resident for “forty-odd years,” said he had advocated for the plan because of problems with traffic congestion, noise, pollution, strains on interpersonal relationships, deterioration of air quality, safety, and tranquility, as per the municipal code. Richard Hallstein of Kensington Road also voiced his support. He said the vote of those affected directly showed most were in favor.

Councilmember Draheim asked traffic engineer Steven Roach to try to sort out the question of whether there really was inadequate parking. Roach had re-run the numbers of total “available” spots by using a calculation that assumed no one should park within ten feet of any driveway edge. This substantially reduced the number of “available” spots, thus pushing up the percentage of “parking spots filled” on any given day.

Roach said in doing this, and in assuming every car needed twenty feet in length, he was following federal guidelines. Pressed by Draheim, City Attorney Tom Yeadon said there was no such assumption in East Lansing’s code and that one could legally park much closer to a driveway than ten feet away.

Yeadon was also asked if Council could legally consider Jack Roberts’ study. Yeadon said they could consider anything they wanted. Councilmember Altmann said the data was challenging to sort out. He asked for data on existing permitted areas, but Roach did not have those available. This is in part because the law does not allow the City to use license plate databases to try to figure out if the people parking in a neighborhood live there.

Altmann (who ultimately voted in favor) said he hoped a simpler guest permitting system might be found to deal with the concerns about hosting visitors to homes. Roach said that in practice, some local sororities and fraternities had misused guest parking permits, but he said the City Clerk’s office might be able to find some accommodation system.

According to City Attorney Tom Yeadon, Council had only two options last night: to vote yes or no on the permit plan as presented. They could not legally vote to create a two-hour parking limit or to specifically restrict parking on MSU football home games because that was not the plan presented.

As the discussion wore on, Councilmember Woods called the situation “ridiculous.” She expressed concern about parkers being pushed farther into the neighborhood, which Roach acknowledged could very well happen.

Shortly after that, Mayor Pro Tem Beier (who ultimately voted “yes”) moved to approve the plan. She said she was glad to have so much information and said she felt the process had been adequately followed. She said she thought “my job as a city official is to do what I think is best for the majority of people.” Since the majority of those homeowners voting on the matter had voted for, she said that was the majority whose wishes she should follow.

Councilmember Draheim (a “no” vote) said she was “empathetic to both sides,” but she said she did not think there was reason to believe there is inadequate parking in the area. She said when someone wants to park on a public street, “I don’t see that as an attack on my neighborhood.” She said she would continue to raise the issue “that it feels a little elitist to me and it makes me uncomfortable.” She indicated she found the way Roach was calculating the number of available spots to be questionable and said that she simply does not see evidence, from what was presented and from her own experiences in that neighborhood as a resident, of inadequate parking. “I drive here every day, and I don’t see it,” she told Council.

Councilmember Woods (a “no” vote) said she thought the ordinance is “flawed” and “does not apply” and that “we do not have the data. And the data we do have shows it is not a problem.” She said PACE does a great job keeping everyone to the rules in Bailey, where she lives. She thought time-limited parking would be “more egalitarian to everyone who drives a car” and would preserve the neighborhood. She also told the people from Chesterfield Hills that the City had just paved their roads “and you have beautiful roads.”

Councilmember Altmann (a “yes” vote) also appreciated how much information was presented and said that for him the “bottom line” was that the majority of homeowners voted in favor. He said he thought there would be a way to deal with guest permits that would leave everyone happy.

Mayor Meadows (a “yes” vote) said he didn’t come in knowing how he would vote but that he thought the process had been followed and the majority of homeowners in the area wanted it. He said it had not been quite as good a process as he had hoped and it would not be a bad idea to look at the ordinance again to see if the permit parking approval process needs work.

At the end, Councilmember Draheim echoed something Meadows said at the beginning—that in the morning everyone would have to wake up as neighbors and that they should work to get along with each other. She said Chesterfield Hills is a great neighborhood with great people and wonderful houses and that there were bigger issues in the community for people to be concerned about.