AJC Watchdog: First Alert

Keeping watch on those who hold the public trust and money

Cobb County's restrictive parking ordinance first done in Washington, D.C.

Cobb County's restrictive ordinance banning parking on private lots near SunTrust Park is modeled nearly word-for-word on a law passed in Arlington, Texas in 2010, which applies to lots around the Dallas Cowboys' and Texas Rangers' stadiums.

But the idea of shutting down competition from private parking lots actually dates back more than 15 years, when Washington Redskins' owner Daniel Snyder collaborated with Prince George's County officials to make illegal walking into FedEx Field from public sidewalks.

Cobb's law became controversial after The Atlanta Journal-Constitution reported earlier this month that it was passed in February without public debate, and that many of the impacted property owners had no idea they wouldn't be allowed to compete against the Braves for parking revenue during stadium events. County officials have said the ordinance is needed for safety.

Washington, D.C. attorney J.P. Szymkowicz, who filed a class-action lawsuit to have the Prince George's County law overturned, said safety was cited as the need for that ordinance in the early 2000s. It was overturned in 2004,  as a result of Szymkowicz's lawsuit.

The D.C. law was covered extensively by journalist Dave McKenna, who wrote about it again in Deadspin after the AJC's story published.

"It's shocking that yet another local government caved into the request of a professional sports team to award them a monopoly on parking on game days," Szymkowicz told the AJC last week. "This harms the fans since parking in the team's lot will inevitably cost much more than adjacent private lots."

Szymkowicz said the Prince George's County ordinance was aimed at eliminating competition from the free parking lot at Landover Mall, about a half-mile from Snyder's FedEx Field. The mall encouraged fans to use their lot, in hopes that they would shop either before or after games, Szymkowicz said.

A memo from local zoning officials said the team "has worked to discourage and eliminate parking at Landover Mall" after it found more than 1,500 cars parked there for a Monday Night Football game in 2000.

"At $25 a car, that translated into a lot of lost money," Szymkowicz told the AJC.

The memo, combined with testimony at trial from the director of public safety at the Baltimore Orioles' Camden Yards about how they managed pedestrian safety without a ban on private lots, was key to having the ordinance overturned, Szymkowicz said.

"Diverting traffic into private lots before the traffic reaches the stadium benefits everyone since these private lots clear much faster than the more congested stadium lots," Szymkowicz said. "Private lot owners who suffer the burdens of increased traffic on game days should be able to recoup some of their aggravation by leasing their unused spaces to baseball fans."

Here's a more detailed story about the lawsuit, published by The Washington Post in 2004.

Cartersville attorney Lester Tate, former president of the State Bar of Georgia,  previously told the AJC that an outright ban on parking in private lots near the stadium is ripe for legal challenge -- especially if there is a less-restrictive means of protecting the public, like requiring lot owners to have off-duty officers direct traffic. At least one property owner near SunTrust Park has threatened a legal challenge to the ordinance if he is not granted a license.

Cobb Commission Chairman Tim Lee initially said the "entire premise" of the AJC's report on Cobb's ban was incorrect. He has since announced the county will likely suspend the ordinance so it can hold public hearings and then consider changes to the law, which impacts dozens of businesses who own more than 10,000 private parking spaces.

As the AJC previously reported, the ordinance requires property owners to apply for a license if they plan to open their lots for a fee during stadium events. But the law creates a "restricted access zone" a half-mile around the stadium and says lots inside that zone won't be issued licenses. There is an appeals process. After the AJC published its story, Lee said that all lots in the restricted zone will be granted licenses when they appeal, if they pose no risk to public safety.

SunTrust Park, which is set to open next year, is partially funded with $376 million in bonds backed by Cobb property taxes, and another $35 million in tax money for 30 years of capital maintenance.

Braves' President of Development Mike Plant said the team requested the ordinance, but not an outright ban on private lots close to the stadium. Violations of the ban are a criminal misdemeanor and can result in fines of up to $1,000 per violation.

Go to myAJC.com to see what other people have said about the ordinance, and read nearly 700 comments left by readers.

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About the Author

Dan Klepal is a reporter on the AJC’s investigative team, focusing mainly on local and state governments. Klepal previously covered Atlanta City Hall and Cobb County, where he wrote extensively about the public investment in SunTrust Park. Prior to coming to Atlanta, Klepal covered city governments in Cincinnati and Louisville, Kentucky.