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Every night, Capitol Hill resident Maureen Nielsen drives through the 1300 block of Emerald Street NE multiple times in search of a parking spot near her house. “I call it ‘visualized parking,’” Nielsen says. “I’ll circle the block and try to visualize an open spot, but if there isn’t anything, I have to park on another street.”

Plenty of District residents are used to parking a few blocks from home if spaces aren’t handy. It comes with living in the city. But when Nielsen does it, it’s illegal.

Unlike the surrounding streets, her block of Emerald Street is not a residential-parking zone. To visitors, this means they can leave their cars all day if they want. To residents, though, it means no more parking rights than outsiders get. Whereas people who live on surrounding streets get permit stickers that allow them to park anywhere in Ward 6, Emerald Streeters get nothing—and are subject to ticketing or towing if they park just one block away.

“We’re becoming an island,” Nielsen says. “We’re the only street around that’s not zoned, so it’s getting really bad. When we park on another street, we have to get up in the morning and move the car back [to Emerald Street].”

Parking rules in the District are notoriously unfriendly to interlopers. When residential-zone rules are in effect, generally from 7 a.m. to 8:30 p.m. on weekdays, cars without permits must leave within two hours—not just moving to another space, but getting out of the zone entirely. “It can be a hassle,” says Bill Rice, spokesperson for the District Department of Transportation. “If you have visitors, or someone coming in to do work on your house, they can be ticketed.”

Still, most District residents have the option of getting temporary permits to protect their in-laws or house painters from parking enforcement. But drivers who live on unzoned streets are automotive second-class citizens, left to scrounge for a handful of legal spaces.

And nothing prevents cars with permits from crowding out the permit-lacking locals. “If someone lives in Zone 4, for example, and people who live in neighboring areas of Zone 4 are parking on their street, there is not much relief we can give them,” says Mary Myers, spokesperson for the Department of Public Works (DPW), which enforces permit parking. “It is, after all, public space….It’s legally within their rights to park there.”

Besides the spillover from permit-bearing neighbors, streets free from the rule of green-and-white residential-parking signs are also a magnet for cars that can’t park anywhere else. The Department of Motor Vehicles grants permits only to people who live on a zoned street, have a valid D.C. vehicle registration, present proof of auto insurance, and are willing to pay the $10 yearly fee for each sticker. When drivers realize that a street is a park-for-free zone, it starts getting crowded, says Mount Pleasant resident Eric Bolda, who lives in the unzoned 1800 block of Kilbourne Place. “It has gotten worse over the past year,” Bolda says. “People have more cars.”

Nielsen describes a similar crush of cars on Emerald Street. “One house on our street has four, possibly five, cars,” she says. “Someone else is running a limousine business, and they have three big Lincoln Town Cars. There are cars that aren’t registered in the District, and I don’t know if they belong to people who live on the street or not.”

Residents of unzoned blocks can seek relief from the Department of Transportation, through the city’s Petition for Residential Parking. If residents obtain signatures from a majority of households in their block, the agency will consider their request. But before drivers can get their signs and stickers, the block must meet two criteria listed at the top of the petition: “Seventy percent (70%) of all legal spaces [must be] filled during business hours, of which at least ten percent (10%) must be occupied by vehicles with out-of-state tags.”

Though her neighbors have talked of circulating a petition, Nielsen says Emerald Street’s problems are less evident during daylight hours. “Parking during the day isn’t a problem—it’s at night,” she says. “If we have to have 70 percent of the spaces filled during the day, that might keep us from being able to get it….I don’t know how other streets around us were able to get it.”

Aric Moore, who lives and works on an unzoned block of 19th Street in Mount Pleasant, says parking at night is the problem in his neighborhood. “There are a lot of young, single residents in this neighborhood,” he says. “Their friends come over and spend the night—then parking is scarce.”

Although night parking is difficult to regulate, given the 8:30 p.m. cutoff for residential-permit enforcement, the DPW is beginning a new Register Out of State Automobiles, or ROSA, program. Overnight enforcement teams will go looking for cars that aren’t registered in the District, to get them off neighborhood streets. “It’s a problem we’re really focusing on now,” Myers says. “If a vehicle is observed more than once, they are given a warning notice, and then after that, ticketed.”

Despite all the contradictions and inequities in the current system of parking zoning, Myers says, free parking for all is not an option. “This issue had been bounced around between residents, [advisory neighborhood commissions], city council,” Myers says. “At one time, there was a push for a unified permit—allowing anyone to park anywhere. That was met with uniform panic. No one liked that idea.” CP