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A public parking garage might be in Healdsburg's future.

Healdsburg would become the third city in Sonoma County to build a parking structure under a scenario envisioned in a consultants' report that will be discussed Tuesday at a joint City Council and Planning Commission meeting.

One potential site for the $9.5 million parking garage is identified as the West Plaza lot, now a surface lot where the Farmers Market is held.

"Building structured parking on the West Plaza lot is particularly expensive, but potentially necessary measure by which to increase the parking supply in downtown Healdsburg," Walker Parking Consultants stated in their 54-page report commissioned by the city.

If Healdsburg decides to build a public parking garage, it would join Santa Rosa and Petaluma, the only other cities in the county where they exist.

Is it a sign that Healdsburg is losing its vaunted small town charm?

"If we build one, it will fit in with small town character," City Councilman Gary Plass said Monday. "It doesn't have to be ugly or so large, or obtrusive."

But Mayor Jim Wood cautioned that Healdsburg may not be ready yet to build a public garage.

"We have talked about the possibility," he said. "I don't know that we've gotten to the point where we are seriously talking about building a parking structure."

That could come into better focus at Tuesday's 6 p.m. meeting at City Hall.

The study assumes parking in the structure and on the street would remain free to motorists.

Healdsburg residents recoiled at the prospect of street parking meters proposed by the police department a couple years ago.

Downtown parking or its scarcity came to the forefront last summer with a proposed 75-room hotel. Though the project was dropped, it raised questions about parking requirements for downtown projects.

Since 1986, the city has allowed parking exemptions for many new businesses to encourage economic growth and a pedestrian-oriented downtown.

Consultants recommend the downtown parking exemption be eliminated.

While they stopped short of recommending a garage, they advise the city to allow developers to pay an "in lieu fee" instead of having to provide for on-site parking or build other parking spaces for their projects.

That fee would be deposited into a fund to finance parking and transportation in downtown Healdsburg, to potentially supply an additional 100 to 242 parking spaces.

The study projects that developers might have to pay between $23,800 to $39,500 per required parking space.

The higher amount would fund an approximate 360-space parking structure on the West Plaza, but only create a net gain of 240 spaces because of the surface parking that would be lost.

The study also suggests the city have more rigorous parking enforcement. Their field work in August found a significant percentage of vehicles park longer than allowed.

For example, they surveyed three-hour, time restricted spaces on downtown streets in the early afternoon and observed 33 of 114 spaces occupied by cars parked for four hours or more. Some were parked for more than eight hours.

When the occupancy rate around the Healdsburg Plaza was 98 percent, almost one-third of on-street spaces were effectively unavailable for short-term visitor parking, consultants said.

They said this was not a criticism of the city's parking enforcement staff because the statistics are typical in popular downtowns where time limits are used to encourage or enforce turnover of parking spaces.