, Newburyport, MA

June 19, 2008

Request spurs parking debate on High Street

By Stephen Tait

NEWBURYPORT — Cheryl Short's knee problems started in the fourth grade and, now at 40 years old, the problems have only grown worse through the decades.

Short is disabled by a degenerative cartilage disease. In both knees, she said the cartilage is almost totally gone, forcing her to have two surgeries in as many years. The problems also forced doctors to remove a kneecap, causing stability problems, and she will undergo total knee replacement in the coming years.

She also has arthritis.

Now, the High Street resident is looking for City Council approval to create a handicap parking spot in front of her home to make everyday chores such as grocery shopping and laundry — tasks that can be problematic — easier endeavors.

"There are times I don't go out because I know I'm not going to get a parking space (when I return)," she said, adding that a handicap spot "would mean more freedom to be able to live."

The proposal is now before the council's Public Safety Committee, where it is sponsored by Councilor Greg Earls, the councilor for Ward 2, where Short lives. The committee will meet about and could vote on the matter July 30, said Steve Hutcheson, chairman of the committee.

But what may seem like an easy decision to help a Newburyport resident is complicated by city regulations.

It is not legal, for instance, to create a handicap parking spot for one individual, councilors say, even though the parking spot Short is seeking would not be private. Councilors also worry that even if the spot isn't private, it could set a precedent for others in the city to seek such spaces in front of houses.

"There are a lot of people around town who might want a handicap space in front of their house," Hutcheson said.

Hutcheson said while he wants to help Short in her situation, creating a spot just may not be viable.

"I really don't want to get into the business of creating individual parking spots for people in the city," the at-large councilor said. "As much as I'd like to, we can't just create a spot."

Hutcheson also said he has concerns about the location of the space, since it is near the intersection of State Street and near where the lanes widen to two.

"To me, I don't see how they would even fit it," he said. "It is a bad spot right there."

But Earls said the space may have a legal grounds for existing. The councilor said in downtown Newburyport, there are handicap spaces scattered around to give access to the stores.

In those cases, the spaces are not for any particular person or for any particular store, either, but to ensure equal access.

For Short, who lives at 102 High St., which is between State and Fruit streets, Earls said a space could be justified because of the nearby Cushing House, which is home to the Historic Society of Old Newbury and a museum. There is no handicap space near that museum.

Besides that, Earls said historically the City Council has granted several public spaces for personal reasons.

"This has more legal foothold because of proximity of public space," Earls said.

Earls said that at this point he is leaning toward supporting creating a handicap space at the location, but said he could still be swayed depending on public testimony.

Once the Public Safety Committee, which Earls is not a part of, votes on the issue, the full council will vote either to reject or approve the proposal.

Short said she does have a deeded parking spot on Otis Place, but that space proves a long walk for her condition, especially since she walks with a cane, making carrying groceries or laundry a particular burden.

She also said parking across the street is difficult and scary since her stability is an issue and she could fall in the middle of the road.

At a recent Public Safety Committee hearing, about six to eight people attended to voice support for Short's proposal for a parking spot. One person, a friend and neighbor, said Short doesn't often talk about it but lives in great pain everyday because of her condition.

Still, Short said she understands the considerations the councilors must weigh.

"I understand they can't give everybody with a handicap a parking spot. It has to fit the zoning. I understand that," she said. "They want to help me. If it's able to be done legally, I think they'll do it."