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Santa Maria City Hall/Library parking structure

A pedestrian walks down the ramp into the lower level of the parking structure adjacent to Santa Maria City Hall and Santa Maria Public Library. The City Council introduced an ordinance Tuesday to cut crime in the three city-owned parking structures.

Santa Maria officials hope the city’s parking structures will no longer be magnets for crime once a new ordinance takes effect, giving police another tool in their law enforcement belts.

The ordinance was introduced Tuesday with a unanimous vote of the City Council and is scheduled to return for final approval at the March 20 meeting. If passed, it would become effective April 19.

Over the past two years, police have seen more than a dozen types of crimes committed in the three city-owned parking structures, which have no gates or roll-down doors and are accessible 24 hours a day.

Illegal activities range from automobile burglaries, vehicle theft and damage, reckless driving, open alcohol containers, lewd acts and smoking marijuana and cigarettes to urinating and defecating, illegal camping and storage of personal property, graffiti tagging, littering, skateboarding and loitering minors.

Some of the activities are illegal under the California Vehicle Code and Penal Code, while others are violations of city ordinances, but it’s difficult for police to prevent them from taking place, said Alex Posada, director of recreation and parks.

“Over the years since the structures were built, we’ve found very few rules that we can enforce inside the structures,” he said.

That’s because the illegal activities are committed by people who are not using the structures for their intended purpose — free parking. They are there specifically to commit crimes.

But unless police or security officers can catch them in the act of committing a crime, there is little they can do to keep them out. Once the officers leave the area, the individuals are free to indulge in illegal activities.

Posada said the goal of the ordinance is to give police a means of removing or issuing citations to people who are not in the structures for legitimate reasons.

“They will be required to have business in the garages while they’re there,” Posada said. “That’s really what we’re talking about here — a common-sense approach to preventing crime.”

The ordinance establishes a list of legitimate reasons for someone being in a parking structure — parking and retrieving a motor vehicle or bicycle, dropping off personal property at or retrieving it from a vehicle, walking from one sidewalk to another, using the restrooms, patronizing or delivering to a business within or adjacent to the structure — and prohibits anyone from being in the structure longer than it should legitimately take to accomplish those tasks.

It also prohibits backing into parking spaces, parking a vehicle in a space that’s designated for a smaller vehicle, taking up more than one space for a single vehicle and parking between 1 and 6 a.m. except by a city-issued permit.

“The overnight parking problem is mostly with those who are using their cars as a home,” Posada said.

The ordinance also expressly forbids riding bicycles, tricycles, skateboards, roller skates, coasters and other toy vehicles in the structures, although bicyclists are allowed to ride to and from a designated bicycle rack.

Posada said the ordinance gives police discretion to determine if someone is in a structure for a legitimate reason, issue warnings and remove individuals from the structures as well as issue citations for violations and noncompliance with officers’ directions.

Council members generally supported the ordinance, although the prohibition on backing into a space was questioned by two councilmen.

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“Seventy-five percent of the pickup trucks back in,” said Councilman Michael Moats, and when asked why, pickup owners say it’s so they can pull out of the space more safely.

Moats wanted to strike that provision from the proposed ordinance. He was supported in that by Councilman Jack Boysen, but they couldn’t generate backing from the rest of the council.

Councilwoman Etta Waterfield said drivers would be more cautious backing out, and she pointed out that most new vehicles have cameras in the rear so drivers have a better view of what’s behind them.

Posada said if a vehicle is backed in a space in the “old” parking structure where there is a one-way circulation pattern, the vehicle would be pulling out against traffic, which would be more dangerous that backing out.

“That would create terrible, terrible problems,” said Councilman Mike Cordero.

But Posada said the main reason for prohibiting vehicles from backing in is so that police officers driving through the parking structure can check to be sure vehicles have current registration tags without getting out of their patrol cars to see the rear license plates.

Mayor Alice Patino said she would have no problem applying the ordinance to all the city’s open parking lots as well.

“The only places we’re getting complaints are the structures,” Posada said.

There was no public comment either for or against the ordinance.

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