Viewpoint: American University getting ticket-happy

(Brady Holt/The Current/May 2017)

It is a shocking fact of life that if you visit any property in Northwest Washington that is owned by American University (AU) and you park on a public street in a legal parking space rather than in an AU garage, you may be ticketed, fined and towed by the university.

We were surprised to discover this in separate incidents when a friend and I visited the campus and found a $200 ticket on our windshields when we returned to our cars. In each case AU voided the ticket because it was a first-time offense, but it provided no guarantees that it would not fine us again if we repeated the infraction.

This astonishing infringement of public parking rights is an unauthorized extension of the so-called “Good Neighbor” policy, an accord that AU reached with its immediate neighbors more than a decade ago in response to concerns about student parking. The university subsequently submitted that agreement to the zoning commission as part of a campus plan for which it sought the commission’s approval. The commission approved the “Good Neighbor” plan, giving AU authority to restrict parking by students, faculty, employees and vendors. With respect to visitors, it noted only that they should be “encouraged” to park in AU lots.

We fully support the “Good Neighbor” policy insofar as it enables AU to prevent members of its own community – students, faculty, vendors and staff – from creating parking congestion in public spaces. But over the years the university has unlawfully expanded the policy, without seeking approval from any duly-elected or appointed D.C. regulatory body, to cover occasional visitors to the campus as well. AU’s policy is rigid:  it requires all visitors to an AU-owned building to park, for a fee, in an AU garage.

The policy exempts no one, not even residents with a valid Zone 3 parking sticker. It falls especially heavily on students in Osher Lifelong Learning Institute, the continuing education program for seniors, who now attend classes in the old law school building on Massachusetts Avenue. And to make matters worse, the university has refused to delineate the boundaries of the area it patrols for allegedly-unlawful parking. Consequently, there is no way for a visitor to know in which streets it is “safe” to park.  

In the context of a current zoning commission proceeding involving a new AU science building, we have objected to the university’s unauthorized assumption of authority to regulate parking by anyone who enters an AU building or property. We hope the commission will agree with us that this expansion violates the letter and intent of the policy it originally approved. We do not know when (or if) the commission will rule on this issue.

In the meantime, any D.C. resident who parks in any (undesignated) area AU patrols may well receive a ticket.The ticketed driver may contest it with AU staff, but AU will insist the ticket is valid if it believes the person has entered any of the facilities or buildings the university owns.

If readers believe, as we do, that this enforcement activity amounts to unlawful harassment of members of the public who have a right to park on public streets, we encourage them to let their ANC members and/or D.C. Council members know.

Nancy Stanley and Ellen Siegler are residents of Chevy Chase.