Widener University has sued the City of Chester, saying its plan to install about 1,200 parking meters on campus is illegal, serves no “proper public purpose,” and may jeopardize enrollment at the school.
In a lawsuit filed Wednesday in Delaware County Court, Widener officials contended that the city was installing the meters solely to raise revenue — at the expense of students and faculty who rely on free parking on and around campus.
Aigner Cleveland, a spokesperson for Mayor Thaddeus Kirkland, said Friday that she could not comment on a pending legal matter. City Solicitor Kenneth R. Schuster did not return a request for comment.
Installation of meters on the tax-exempt property Widener owns and operates is part of Chester’s new comprehensive parking plan, which city officials unveiled in November at an informal community meeting. When completed, it will bring 1,500 “smart” parking meters to the city, the majority around the campus.
City officials, in material distributed to residents, describe the parking plan as a byproduct of the city’s growth, and say the meters will help the city “expand its curb space” and make finding parking safer and easier for residents and visitors. Once activated, the meters will charge $2 an hour to park in a space.
Hundreds of poles have already been installed around Widener’s campus, with the meters to be added in the coming weeks. The city has said parking enforcement around Widener will begin Jan. 14, the day that students return to the campus for the spring semester.
The attorney representing Widener in the case, Rocco P. Imperatrice III, said Friday that reaction to the meters has been swift and intense, with some faculty and staff saying having to pay for parking may force them to seek new jobs.
He said that no one at the university was consulted about the plan, and that officials learned of its pending rollout only on Friday in a news release from Kirkland’s office.
“The university is distressed at the actions of the city,” Imperatrice said. “And the university is being forced to take all appropriate legal action to prevent the city from irreparably damaging the university, the city itself, and the community and its residents.”
Opposition to the meters quickly mounted. An online petition started by a student at the school had garnered more than 3,000 signatures as of Friday.
“Some students and residents are already having financial trouble as it is,” Cameron Ciarrocca wrote on the petition’s website. “We would like to stand up for ourselves and create a healthy petition to show to the City of Chester that we as Widener students, faculty, staff, and Chester residents, are against the installation of parking meters to prevent further parking issues that Widener and the community are already dealing with.”
Of the 5,600 undergraduate and graduate students at the school, 4,100 are commuters, according to the civil suit.
In the suit, Imperatrice noted that Widener provides “substantial financial support for the city, some or all of which may be jeopardized" by the parking plan.
He included a long list of Widener’s contributions to Chester, including covering a city police officer’s salary and patrol car, paying for security that bolsters the city’s police force, offering internships for city departments, making investments into education programs for the city’s young people, and organizing student and faculty partnerships with city-based organizations.
The school estimates that the new meters will cause a 20 percent reduction in enrollment, a loss of revenue it places at more than $30 million annually, according to the suit.
“Even a fraction of the lost revenue ... would jeopardize not only the services to the city, the community, employees and the residents, but also would threaten the very existence and continued operation of the university,” the suit says.