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Commuters Left Adrift

When the car-poolers pulled into Saratoga Shopping Center in Springfield only to see their cars gone, it was the start of a long night and bad blood between the commuters and the shopping center management company, First Washington.

Lorraine Rihaly was one of the car-poolers along with Jim Albanese, Steve Weinstein and Don Moser.

"When our cars weren't there it was a bit of a shock. To be treated this way is downright mean, we had to put $90 out," to get the cars out of the tow lot, Rihaly said.

Weinstein was upset as well.

"They waited for about two hours and then they towed us. They marked our cars with a big red X. It's pretty sneaky, it was a bad evening," he said.

IN THE LOT at Saratoga, there is a row of parking spaces on one side that were designated as commuter parking spaces, and then another area over in front of the Mobil station where the unsanctioned "slug" line forms for cars to get enough people to get in the high occupancy vehicle (HOV) lane. The location of this shopping center and a Fairfax Connector bus stop makes it attractive to commuters in southern Springfield. Rihaly, Albanese, Weinstein and Moser were only one group affected that night.

Rihaly said the row of commuter spaces were marked with a sign at either end. The signs were removed but no notices were distributed in the days before the change was officially made. New signs were put up at the entrances but it was uncertain as to the date they were put up.

"We don't have any recollection of those signs, [designating commuter parking] it may have been prior to us," said Vice President of Marketing at First Washington Management Inc., Christine Schaaf.

First Washington Management Inc. originally bought the center in 1999 then sold it but retained management of it. Schaaf said they did not know the commuters were using the lot until recently.

"We recently got complaints from merchants. Henry's towing was told that if they saw someone leaving their cars and getting in other cars and leaving, they should tow the car," Schaaf said.

Rihaly thinks notifying the commuters a few days before the change would have been the right thing to do.

"That would have been a courteous gesture to give us notice. We all utilize the facilities at the Saratoga Shopping Center. I shop at Giant all the time. I did miss Jazzercise that day," she said. Jazzercise is one of the businesses next to Giant.

Weinstein shops there also, sometimes picking up items in the evening before he gets in his car.

"We give them business also, at the end of the day," he said.

THE MANAGER at Giant acknowledged the incident but quoted company policy of no comment.

Val Chumley, who works at the Mobil station, is aware of the parking situation.

"The people that own the shopping center are tired of the commuters so they told Henry's to tow them. I saw a few cars on their tow truck, they sit right over here and wait for commuters," she said.

Catherine Eaker also works in the Mobil.

"There's a problem with parking, on this side," she said, pointing out to the area between the gas station and the bank where the slug pick up is. "When I come to work there's no place to park. I've had some people come in here and asked where their cars are."

SCHAAF DID NOTE their attempt to reconcile the situation of Feb. 28 but remains firm in the "no commuter parking" rule, as stated on their signs.

"We don't want to cause any problems in the community. They can go to Henry's with a receipt and get their money refunded," she said.

David Lear comes through the parking lot on a daily basis when he drops his child off at daycare at 6:45 a.m.

"There seems to be excess parking. This morning for example, there couldn't have been five cars," he said.

Weinstein looked at a bigger picture concerning carpooling.

"One minute everybody promotes it [carpooling], the next minute they're against it," he said.

The shopping center is in Supervisor Gerry Hyland's (D-Mount Vernon) district. He sees both sides of the issue, which ultimately points to the county budget. A commuter lot was planned for Gambril Road but it has been put on hold because of funding.

"From a risk management standpoint it's a liability. The solution is to have a commuter parking lot. There's one planned for Gambril Road, but it's on hold because of budget issues. There's no question we don't have enough parking for ride-share. There is a need that's not being met," Hyland said.

Hyland also indicated that churches sometimes allow parking in their lots as one possible solution. The car-poolers found their own solution for the time being.

"We're parking on street parking," Weinstein said.