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Time may have come to consider paid parking


The planned construction of a new, 143-seat restaurant along Ocean Drive has made the Central Beach business district's parking shortage the talk of the town.

"It's definitely brought a lot more attention to the issue," Vero Beach City Manager Jim O'Connor said. "We're certainly looking to address it, and we're exploring our options."

One of those options is paid parking – a suggestion that has been rejected by city leaders for years but, ultimately, might be the only  way to ensure the necessary turnover of available spaces, especially along Ocean Drive.

It likely will be the last option considered, however.

"That's the feeling I get," Vero Beach Vice Mayor Harry Howle said. "There are still a lot of people who believe that to 'Keep Vero, Vero' you need to keep everything the same. But Vero is changing.

"People keep coming here," he continued. "We're seeing more people every winter, and that's not going to change. We're also seeing more houses built out west in the county. Those people are moving here to be close to the beach, and they're coming to Ocean Drive, too.

"Paid parking might not be the answer," he added, "but, right now, every option is open, because something's got to be done, even if it's not the be-all, end-all solution. We've got to find a way to make the situation better.

"Whether it's paid parking or an electronically monitored system or buying land, building a garage and running huge, golf-cart-type shuttles ... We've got to figure this out."

What's encouraging, Howle said, is that the City Council realizes it no longer can "kick the can down the road," and now considers the beachside parking issue to be among its top priorities.

Until recently – really, it was the controversy over the proposed restaurant that forced city officials to finally commit to confronting the issue – paid parking was a non-starter.

Past city councils would not even consider it, and it’s still not a popular option. But, at the very least, it's now on the radar and is being discussed.

"It does seem like they're getting there," City Planning Director Tim McGarry said. "I think there's now some support for it on the council, or at least there doesn't seem to be as much resistance to talking about it.

"There's still plenty of opposition around town," he added. "Some people say that paid parking is for places like Fort Lauderdale – not for a small, friendly town like Vero Beach. Nobody really wants to do it.

"But, at some point, there might not be any other way."

The free GoLine shuttle, which offered park-and-ride service from Riverside Park, didn't attract nearly enough riders to justify the expenditure. Stricter police enforcement didn't work, either.

Now O'Connor is suggesting that the city consider an electronic monitoring system similar to the one currently operating in Stuart, where police digitally tag vehicles rather than manually mark the tires of parked cars with chalk.

The electronic system would make it impossible for people to simply move their parked car from one space to another – or simply roll their vehicle forward to hide the chalk mark – to avoid getting ticketed for time violations.

O'Connor, though, wasn't necessarily endorsing such a system.

"There are some flaws," O'Connor said. "Some cars have gotten ticketed multiple times because, even though they were moved, they were still in the same downtown parking district.

"So unless we could tweak it, moving from a space on Ocean Drive to a space on Cardinal Drive wouldn't prevent you from getting a ticket," he added, "because you'd still be parked in the same district."

O'Connor pointed out that Stuart also provides alternative parking three blocks from the downtown hub and runs three shuttles. To do so here would be costly.

"In addition to the Police Department's parking enforcement officer, you'd have the costs of paying three drivers and running three shuttles," O'Connor said. "Does the Council want to spend the money to do that?"

Val Zudans, a member of the city's Planning & Zoning Board, said the seasonal parking issues on Ocean Drive have "deteriorated to the point that businesses and their customers are suffering.

He wants the city to take a hard look at the electronic monitoring system – and if that won't work in Vero Beach, then officials should continue to study what other cities and towns are doing to address their parking problems.

"Let's not re-invent the wheel," Zudans said. "Other communities have already dealt with exactly this same issue. Stuart implemented electronic chalking and golf-cart shuttles with reported success. Worth Avenue in Palm Beach used valet parking and frequent shuttles for similar issues.

"I would advocate that we talk with other communities and explore these solutions before considering paid parking."

Councilman Lange Sykes would prefer other solutions.

First, he wants the Council to push for stronger enforcement of the existing parking regulations in the existing city code. Then, he would encourage the "private sector" to provide a solution, even if it means granting variances to the code to allow for construction of a parking garage.

"Paid parking is worth discussing," Sykes said, "but it seems to me, based on the public input I've received, paid parking would be down the list of options."

The city council has instructed McGarry to review the parking regulations in the city code and suggest amendments that would address the problems in a Central Beach business district.

McGarry said the parking regulations in the code do need to be updated, but he doubts the changes will be enough to solve the problem.

"Making the parking requirements more strict," he said, "isn't the answer."

Is a paid parking system?

It's an option, city officials say – a last resort.