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Wednesday, 13 October 2010 20:13

Sylva merchant fights back against employee parking ban downtown

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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.

But last week, the 76-year-old auctioneer and dogged Republican campaigner for state office — to date, unsuccessfully — surfaced as the primary opponent of the town law.

The new rule, passed this summer, sets fines for downtown merchants and employees if they park on Mill or Main streets or in the old Ritz Theater parking lot during prime daytime business hours. The ordinance is intended to ease a parking scrum and reserve coveted spots for shoppers.

Spillover into side streets has shifted the problem to the front door of businesses outside the targeted area, prompting Sylva leaders to consider extending the ordinance’s range. But that wasn’t decided on during last week’s town meeting.

Instead, Allen held forth — by her calculation — for 45 minutes in a stream-of-consciousness monologue on the topic. The end came only because she had to go call an auction later that same evening.

“The day in question, it was a very hectic day,” Allen began, attired in her trademark oversized black-framed spectacles and colorful red, white and blue clothing. She accessorized by including a miniature digital billboard pinned to her lapel that sported the message to cast your vote for Allen for the 119 House district.

Allen pleaded poverty, citing an inability to pay the $50 fine. She discussed “unintended consequences” of the law, including the “pitting of neighbor against neighbor.” A fellow business owner called police and reported the violation.

Ignoring pleas from Mayor Maurice Moody for brevity, Allen included a blow-by-blow timeline of that day, which she described as painfully and permanently branded on her memory.

In CliffsNotes form, here’s what happened: Allen, driving her “follow-me-to-victory” brightly painted campaign van that has served through at least two elections, parked in front of her shop on Main Street, ostensibly to unload and load furniture. She was there longer than the 30 minutes allowed — much longer, from the sounds of it.

Though some business owners or employees might be parking illegally and escaping ticketing, Allen’s van betrayed her.

A business owner down the street (Allen knows who you are, by the way) reported her. The police showed up, and issued a citation. That would be Sylva policewoman Tammy Hooper, and the citation was issued, Allen said, at precisely 3:55 p.m.

“I don’t punch a time clock when I park, and I don’t punch a time clock when I leave,” she said. “I don’t think this warrants a $50 fine. I feel that this is a violation of entrepreneurial types of businesses.”

Allen told commissioners she strongly supports their mission to find ways of easing the parking crunch downtown. But the new ordinance, she argued, interferes with her ability, and that of other downtown business owners, to conduct business, and is unlawful to boot — because, Allen said, they have a right to conduct that business. And to park in front of their own business while doing so.

“I wouldn’t argue the point with you,” said Commissioner Harold Hensley before proceeding to do exactly that. “But everybody has to make it work … say, I’m loading an hour or two, you need to explain to fellow downtown merchants why you need so much time, because now his customers can’t park there.”

“Thirty minutes is not enough time,” Allen shot back. “And $50 is a lot of money to me — a lot of money. I don’t ask not to be responsible, but I do ask for some consideration.”

Commissioners did not take action on Allen’s requests for mercy. Moody said the town’s manager would be in touch with her to discuss the matter.

Allen told The Smoky Mountain News she intends to fight the citation, from sea to shining sea and to the highest courts in the land if necessary.

Asked if that means even if it costs her hundreds of dollars instead of the $50 in question she is finding such difficulty scratching together, Allen responded succinctly: “Damn right.”

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