Parking at the Newark Reservoir will remain free, after a majority of city council members expressed opposition to Councilman Chris Hamilton’s proposal to charge non-residents to park at the popular recreation spot.
“How many things do we have left in the world that are free? I just want to go to a park with my dog and my kids and a bike, and just enjoy the park,” Councilman Jason Lawhorn said during Monday’s council meeting. “We just fee everything to death, and it’s just not worth it, in my opinion, to make a few bucks to take away one of the last things we have left that’s actually free.”
Council did, however, agree to continue discussing ways to handle parking at the under-construction Rodney stormwater park. City officials fear that the park’s proximity to downtown and the University of Delaware campus could leave it open to abuse by people looking for free parking to walk elsewhere.
Hamilton first broached the subject in August, when he noted that the reservoir lot is often full, prompting people to park in the grass and causing unsafe situations. He added that many of the license plates are from other states.
“I personally have been at that reservoir many, many times, and people can’t find a place to park. It becomes a dangerous situation,” Hamilton said.
The city has long planned to develop the empty land across the street into another park, including additional parking and other amenities, but that isn’t scheduled to happen until at least 2023. Hamilton suggested that money from parking fees could help offset the cost of that project.
“If we’re going to have a lot of folks who are not contributing to this park as far as taxes and things, I think it’s incumbent on us not to have all those expenses fall just on the residents,” he said.
City officials said charging for parking could be done through various methods, including traditional parking meters, the kiosks and mobile app used for parking downtown, or a yearly park permit similar to what state parks use. However, they cautioned that any method would cost the city money to implement and enforce and that charging for parking could negatively impact the image of the city and push cars into neighborhoods and other areas surrounding the parks.
Both Lawhorn and Councilman James Horning Jr. said they received overwhelmingly negative feedback regarding the proposal.
“There are few things since I’ve been on council where I’ve had as much feedback on how opposed people were to the idea of charging to park in our parks,” Lawhorn said.
He added that parks draw people to Newark, and some of those people also patronize the city’s businesses.
“I think we want to invite people to our city,” he said. “Our parks are one of our cornerstones and one of the reasons people come here – to mountain bike, to walk our trails, to jog, to run.”
Horning predicted a “public relations blowback” if a parking fee is implemented.
“It does kind of create a negative connotation,” Horning said. “No matter where you are in life, you can go to our city parks and just enjoy yourself. You don’t need to have money to do it.”
The idea also drew strong opposition from advocates of Preston’s Playground, the accessible playground that was funded by $500,000 in private donations. Located at the base of the reservoir, the playground attracts people from around the region.
Nic DeCaire, who spearheaded the playground project, said it was “a gift to the city” from the hundreds of people who donated time and labor to building it in 2018.
“Charging them to use this amazing, all-inclusive playground would be a total slap in the face for anyone who spent time or money on this project,” DeCaire said. “In fact, it would make it not an inclusive playground anymore. Most families who have children with special needs cannot afford to pay for a park that we built specifically for them.”
The 90-minute discussion Monday night grew heated at times. At one point, Hamilton suggested he might use the Freedom of Information Act to obtain Lawhorn and Horning’s emails to see how much negative feedback they actually received. Later, he called efforts to end discussion of the proposal “pathetic,” prompting Lawhorn to interject.
“I’m getting fed up with the shots that he’s taken over the last few months at multiple council members, and he’s doing it again tonight,” Lawhorn said.
Ultimately, council took no action on the proposal to charge fees at the reservoir. A majority of the council – Lawhorn, Horning, Councilwoman Sharon Hughes and Councilman Jay Bancroft – was opposed to a parking fee. Councilman Travis McDermott said he was receptive to charging out-of-state vehicles only, and Mayor Jerry Clifton didn’t give a definitive answer.
However, council did direct City Manager Tom Coleman to research possible measures to control parking at the Rodney park, which is expected to open this summer at the former UD dorm site on Hillside Road.
“Rodney is literally next to campus,” Clifton said, predicting that students will park there for free and walk to class. “I think we do need to come up with some sort of workable resolution…I think that we need to keep parking available and rotating. That affords everyone the opportunity to use it.”
Coleman suggested a “step-wise approach” at Rodney, rather than charging right away, such as limiting parking to only people using the park or instituting a two-hour time limit. Council will discuss the issue further March 15.
Council also asked Coleman to brainstorm ways that people could be encouraged to donate money toward increasing parking at the reservoir. Several members suggested installing signs asking for voluntary payments, either through the city’s parking app, Venmo or GoFundMe.
“If someone gets out of their car, and they have to park along the street and then they see that we’re trying to raise funds for extended parking, maybe they’re more willing to contribute,” Horning said.