- Associated Press - Saturday, February 7, 2015

ALTOONA, Pa. (AP) - It’s a long-held view in global affairs: When resources are scarce, conflict often follows.

For evidence, look no further than the streets of Altoona - or indeed, any Northern city - after a heavy snowfall. Few resources will be more sought-after, or more heavily contested, than a freshly shoveled parking space.

During winter storms, police in many cities and boroughs must contend with neighborhood disputes and legal misunderstandings as drivers squabble over limited space. And when weather forces small-town governments to clear residents from the streets, the work comes with a hefty price tag.

“There seems to be a lot of contention in the neighborhoods. … It’s very difficult for people to park,” said Dave Diedrich, public works director for Altoona. “But you can’t enforce common courtesy.”

‘Yinzer justice’

The call crackled over Blair County police radios Tuesday night: Someone had parked in a resident’s newly shoveled-out spot. He apparently wanted police to take action against the thief.

There was little police could do in response. The space-snagging might seem morally comparable to theft, but legally, it’s perfectly acceptable.

“What we do run into is issues of neighbor-versus-neighbor,” Altoona Police Sgt. Brian Freiwald said. “It’s completely obnoxious, but it is not illegal.”

Anyone who’s lived in a western or central Pennsylvania city is likely familiar with the “parking chair,” a marker left outside to hold a spot from those would-be thieves.

A cheap patio chair or an overturned garbage can usually does the trick.

They can be effective in swaying drivers from slipping into a spot, but they’re technically illegal, police have stressed.

“You see the cones, the chairs … there was a planter out there” recently, Freiwald said.

When officers come across the chairs, they can remove them or knock on doors to warn their owners. Leaving a chair in the street - even with good intentions - is littering, police in several Northern cities have repeatedly warned during past winters.

The job is best left to police, though, Freiwald cautioned. A 2010 story on Pittsburgh news station WTAE described the so-called “yinzer justice” meted out to those who dared interfere with parking chairs.

Altoona residents have reported insults drawn into the snow on invading cars and shouts at their owners; one Pittsburgher on WTAE reported neighbors burying an outsider’s vehicle in feet of powder.

“They’re territorial,” Freiwald said.

Heated disputes

The chairs, however, are merely a symptom of a larger problem police and municipal authorities often face.

When heavy snow falls and car owners are forced to dig their way to freedom, tempers can flare among neighbors - often fueled by basic misunderstandings of the law.

In crowded towns and cities, residents sometimes come to think they own the spaces around their homes, police said. In some cases, people mistakenly believe they can even have public spots reserved for personal use.

“Listen, understand: You don’t own the street. That is a public street,” Duncansville Police Chief James Ott said. “If (your neighbors) park 10 cars because they own 10 cars, that is not a violation of the law.”

While borough and city residents might occasionally hear neighbors’ gripes that they plan to reserve a space, no such arrangement exists, Freiwald of Altoona stressed.

For one, it would be borderline impossible to police effectively: Officers would have to look out for “reserved for John Doe” signs all along the city’s hundreds of miles of road.

Even specially assigned handicapped spaces are open to anyone with a handicapped placard, even if they live nowhere near the spot in question, Freiwald noted.

Common misunderstandings around those spaces can lead to friction in packed neighborhoods, he said. And while police often respond to residents’ complaints with a simple explanation over the phone, officers sometimes have to cool the situation when two neighbors bicker openly on the street.

“You don’t want it to become physical,” Freiwald said. “These situations can potentially become very heated. I mean, that person worked for hours. They look at it as stealing.”

Expensive emergencies

So far this year, central Pennsylvania hasn’t faced the sort of brutal snowstorm that hit New England last week, tying up public transportation and closing roads. While the storm didn’t hit the New York City area as hard as expected, officials closed roads to all non-emergency traffic over several counties there.

Towns and cities here might not be up against such serious emergencies, but even small towns are regularly forced to clear cars from the roads when snow piles too high.

That can pose another headache - both for police, who have to enforce the emergency rules, and for municipal officials, who have spent large sums on equipment and warn the public as quickly as possible.

“Each day I spent a decent amount of time knocking on doors,” said Ott of Duncansville, whose borough declared a snow emergency last weekend. During the 48-hour emergencies, residents have to move cars to alternating sides of each street as crews work to clear snow.

Those who don’t move their cars can expect a knock on the door and a friendly warning, he said - but repeat offenders face tickets or tow trucks.

In Bedford Borough, where officials declared an emergency last winter, costs can stack up for the sudden work.

“It’s not something I like to do if we don’t have to,” said Barb Diehl, Bedford’s borough manager.

With plow work contracted to a private company, last year’s emergency cost the borough $14,000, she said. Boroughs that don’t budget for the possibility can face serious, unexpected bills, she noted.

“It had created enough problems that I had to look at it from a safety perspective,” Diehl said. “But Bedford’s a quaint little town. They’re used to this. They know the policy.”

‘You help them out’

Of course, forcing residents from their roads and onto side streets or parking lots can be a headache in itself, especially when neighbors are already testy over limited space.

In Altoona’s rare emergencies - three in the last 18 years, Diedrich of the Public Works Department said -the city has opened municipal lots and worked with private interests like the Jaffa Shrine to relieve parking pressure.

With the past few years’ surge in online social media use, however, police and officials can address both upcoming emergencies and neighborhood squabbles in a way they never could before.

Ott of Duncansville said his department used social media to warn residents of the recent storm and the planned snow emergency, apparently with success.

In Altoona, Freiwald, who runs the police department’s heavily read Facebook page, has used the Internet to spread wintertime advice. A Monday post shared hundreds of times urged the reader to “be a good neighbor” and shovel sidewalks for elderly or physically incapable residents.

Across the state, the Philadelphia Police Department invoked the hit Disney film “Frozen” this month as they urged residents not to illegally save spots. A widely shared online post read: “Someone parked where you shoveled? Let it go,” accompanied by the slogan “No savesies.”

“We try our best,” Freiwald said. “You reach out. You help them out.”

Given the chance, though, even snowed-in neighbors can set aside their disputes, Diedrich said.

“It’s very difficult … you see the chairs,” he said. “But the snow brings out the best in people, too.”

Officials mentioned people clearing stuck neighbors’s sidewalks or opening others’ spaces, while officers in small towns have grabbed shovels to carry out “community policing.”

“That all happens too,” Diedrich said. “Probably more than the fighting.”

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Online:

https://bit.ly/1DkRlKp

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Information from: Altoona Mirror, https://www.altoonamirror.com


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