SALEM — A handicapped parking space in front of a home at 157 North St. was requested a decade ago by a person with a medical need for it. That person, police Chief Mary Butler said, eventually passed away... but the space is still there.
The sign and designated spot were supposed to expire years ago — they're only valid for a couple of years — but they haven't and instead continue to occupy what is an increasingly limited amenity for Salem residents — on-street parking near their home. That space on North Street is among about 200 handicapped parking spots in neighborhoods all over the city that have been requested by residents at one time or other.
Now, police are reviewing these parking spaces with plans to create a digital inventory and routine review of those handicapped spots that are due to expire.
Police Capt. Frederick Ryan said the department is tracking the roughly 200 spaces requested by residents over the years, interviewing people who live near them and determining whether the spots are still needed.
"It's basically a lot of visits and follow-ups to find out which ones are needed," he said.
The effort has been going for a couple months, according to Ryan. It started after police were receiving requests for spaces and noticing a trend near each request.
"When we were getting new requests from residents for handicapped parking spots," he said, "we were noticing other handicapped parking spots (already) on the streets."
By law, anyone with a handicap placard can park in a handicapped parking space, whether or not that person was the one to request the space from the city.
In order to get a space, residents file paperwork with the city. The Traffic and Parking Commission reviews it with information provided by police, including the nature of the request, why it's needed and other factors, according to Dave Kucharsky, the city's traffic and parking director.
Eventually, a recommendation is passed on to the City Council for a vote, and the space lasts for two years if it's approved, Kucharsky said.
Or at least, it's supposed to last two years.
"Because (tracking has) been paper-based since its inception, there have been some tracking issues," Kucharsky said.
This is separate from handicapped parking spaces that are created in public parking areas — those designated spots last in perpetuity. There are 120 such spaces in lots around the city.
"The on-street ones are the ones specifically in residential neighborhoods," Kucharsky said. "They aren't simply dedicated to the resident who requested it legally. if another handicapped individual is visiting someone, they can park there if they have the placard in the window."
It remains unclear when the review and inventory will be completed, but eventually police will have an electronic list of all the spaces, including who requested them, why, when it was approved and when it's due to expire. That way, as they expire, police can touch base with those who needed the space and determine if it's still necessary, according to Ryan.
And once spaces are vetted and found to still be needed, they'll also be repainted, Ryan said. The other spaces, meanwhile, could get thinned out over time.
"We've found there are a lot more spots than we thought were out there," he said. "We're trying to get an audit to see where they are and whether they're needed."
Salem's neighboring cities vary somewhat on how residential handicapped signs are added and removed.
In Peabody, residents talk to their ward councilor, who then file a request with the full City Council to vote on, according to Allyson Danforth, clerk of committees in the city clerk's office. Police don't get involved, the Department of Public Services puts the sign up.
"On the reverse side," Danforth said, "we'll get requests to take them down."
Beyond that, there is no process to check up on signs after they're posted, according to Danforth.
Beverly, meanwhile, is a bit more aggressive in how it handles signs. Requests from residents are sent to the Police Department, and the Department of Public Services studies the site to ensure there are no gas lines or infrastructure that could be affected by the sign's placement, according to City Clerk Wes Slate.
The reviewed sign then goes to the City Council for a vote, according to Slate. But his department also keeps an eye on signs that may no longer be necessary, such as when the person requesting it dies — at which point, the city clerk's office gets a death certificate and knows to look into the sign.
"There is no time limit on them," Slate said, "but we do keep track of them."