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Kenyon: Parking Beefs

As she has been doing for much of the last half century, Mary Shatney, the 75-year-old owner of the Polka Dot diner, drove into downtown White River Junction shortly before dawn on a recent Saturday.

But instead of turning into the narrow driveway behind the diner, as she usually does, she drove another 25 yards or so. Shatney, whose body weight barely exceeds her age, then proceeded to dock her 2002 silver Cadillac DeVille horizontally smack across three angled parking spaces on Main Street, hoping to prove that possession is indeed nine-tenths of the law.

After setting up her parking space blockade, Shatney walked across the street to her diner and waited behind the grill for the cops to arrive, which she correctly figured would be only a matter of time.

What’s this all about?

“They didn’t hold to their word,” said Shatney, referring to town officials. “I decided to do something to get their attention.”

Shatney, who started as a waitress at the Polka Dot 54 years ago, is fed up with the town failing to abide by a 1993 agreement that allotted the diner three prime (and free) downtown parking spaces for customers.

The Polka Dot is an Upper Valley institution, known for its generous breakfast portions and lunch specials (Salisbury steak and sausage gravy on a biscuit were Monday’s menu highlights) that you can’t find on 12A’s fast food alley. (Fried honeycomb tripe is another Polka Dot specialty.)

Shatney and her husband, Buddy, bought the Polka Dot in the early 1980s. Like the previous owner, the couple leased the sliver of Main Street real estate the diner is located on from the railroad company. The long-term lease included three parking spaces.

By the late 1980s, a much-needed major redevelopment effort was under way downtown, including construction of a road to connect Main Street with a new state courthouse on Railroad Row. When the road went in, the Polka Dot lost its parking.

On June 18, 1993, then-Hartford Town Manager Ralph Lehman wrote a letter to the Shatneys that outlined a new parking agreement. “It is the intent of the town of Hartford to move the three parking spaces presently allotted to you abutting the railroad tracks approximately ten or twenty feet further south on South Main Street,” stated the letter, which Shatney gave me. “... the town fully intends to provide for you three parking spaces within a distance of 150 feet of your front door, either on North Main Street or South Main Street.”

The Shatneys signed the agreement the following day, but didn’t push the town to cordon off their three reserved spaces. So why is Mary Shatney (her husband died in 1996) raising havoc now?

Frankly, finding a convenient parking space in downtown White River Junction hasn’t been a problem for much of the last 20 years. But revitalization efforts finally seem to be taking hold. More people are visiting and working downtown.

And that’s the rub.

Some people who work downtown are hogging Main Street’s prime parking spaces rather than using the 160 spaces in the municipal lot behind the shuttered American Legion hall. Parking is free behind the Legion, just as it is throughout Hartford, but it can be a bit of a walk on a cold winter day and somewhat unnerving after dark.

That often leaves Polka Dot regulars who are older or have disabilities unable to find parking close to the diner, Shatney said. “I had a customer tell me that he drove twice around the block and when he couldn’t find a place to park, he just went home and made himself a sandwich,” she said.

Signs throughout downtown refer to a two-hour limit on Main Street. From time to time in the last couple of years, Polka Dot waitress Pat Chase has joined Shatney in asking police to enforce the limit. “This is affecting my livelihood,” Chase said. “They might as well take down those signs. Nobody pays any attention to them.”

A few hours after Shatney set up her barricade, of sorts, a Hartford patrol officer entered the diner. Apparently, he didn’t see the humor in Shatney’s one-woman, one-Caddy protest. He gave Shatney five minutes to move the car or he’d have it towed. She showed him the letter. “I don’t want to hear it,” she recalled the officer saying. “Take it up with the town.”

So that’s what she’s doing. (After having moved her car that Saturday.)

Town Manager Hunter Rieseberg was given a copy of the letter, which he shared with the town’s lawyer. “We’re not sure what weight it carries,” Rieseberg told me. Nothing in Selectboard records indicate the town’s governing board approved the arrangement, which Rieseberg said would be needed today.

Meanwhile, Hartford is working on a plan to improve downtown parking, which could include converting the 39 space municipal lot across from Hotel Coolidge House to paid parking. The Polka Dot’s reserved free spaces could possibly go in that lot, Rieseberg said. “We will work it out so she gets what she needs,” he said.

Yesterday Shatney was invited to a meeting that Steve Locke, Hartford’s fire chief and new public safety director, and his two police deputies had with Mollie Martin, executive director of the Hartford Area Chamber of Commerce. I sat in, too. Given the town has a two-hour parking limit, “we have an obligation to enforce it, but given that we haven’t done that in a while, we need to start with an educational component,” Locke said.

Starting today, “you will see an officer down there chalking tires,” said Locke, who was put in charge of the police department three weeks ago. Instead of $7 tickets, however, Hartford will start by giving “friendly reminders” that downtown parking is limited to two hours and free all-day parking is available behind the Legion hall.

“Good,” said Shatney, before leaving the meeting. “I hope it works.”

She got in her silver Caddy and headed for the Polka Dot. This time, she parked in the driveway.

Jim Kenyon can be reached at Jim.Kenyon@valley.net.