As far back as just about anyone can remember, the parking spaces on Wells Avenue in Watertown have been known as the town lot. For the better part of 50 years, the parking meters there have collected coins for the town's treasury and town workers have plowed and maintained the Coolidge Square lot. There's even a sign erected by the town directing cars to the lot's 19 metered spaces, which are contained within a larger, private parking area.
There's only one problem: Watertown doesn't own the lot.
Gerald S. Mee Jr., the town's Department of Public Works superintendent, said he was shocked to find out last fall that the entire property is owned by the nearby Citizens Bank branch on Mt. Auburn Street.
According to Mee, the town has been using the land for public parking since 1961, when municipal officials and the then-property owner signed a license agreement for the sum of $1.
"We always thought we owned it," said Mee, who's lived in Watertown for more than 50 years and has been DPW chief since 1993.
Mee said the discovery was made after a surveyor was hired in October to mark the lot's property lines in preparation for possible sidewalk widening and other improvements. Many of the parking meters have frequently been broken or knocked down by careless drivers, Mee said, so his plan was to widen the sidewalks to meet handicap-accessibility standards and give the meters a little extra distance from the curb.
Now town officials are wondering what this means for the future of parking in the square. Town Councilor at Large Mark Sideris, who is also the board's vice president, said at last week's meeting that he was "disappointed" to hear the land belongs to the bank, and worries the town may be held legally liable if someone were hurt in the lot.
"If we're collecting money from people that park there, I want to see something that says we can do that," Sideris said.
Mee said the 1961 agreement is probably "subject to renegotiation" if the land was ever sold, but added that the town's attorney, Mark Reich, is reviewing the arrangement and will report on the town's legal standing.
District A Councilor Angeline Kounelis, who represents the Coolidge Square area, said she was stunned to learn the lot doesn't belong to the town, and even called a number of old-timers to ask if they had known about the situation, but none did. "I've just kind of taken it for granted, as we all have," she said.
Kounelis said she's concerned about the legal and practical implications the situation may hold for the businesses that rely on that lot for customer parking, as well as access for delivery trucks and private parking. The lot is a critical source of parking in the busy square, where street parking is "minimal," she said. Last week, Kounelis asked Town Manager Michael Driscoll to provide the council with a complete list of all town-owned properties.
The council's Committee on Public Works will take up the subject at a Feb. 19 meeting, said the board's president, Clyde L. Younger.