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This paved lot, owned by Barry Swenson Builder on Monterey Avenue just past the Esplanade in Capitola Village, is not participating in the free holiday parking available at city lots and metered spaces. (Jondi Gumz/Sentinel)

CAPITOLA -- Warning: This holiday story does not have a happy ending, at least not yet.

It's the story about how a generous holiday gesture ended up as a worst-case scenario for Jeff Gutman, taking the merry out of his Christmas.

Gutman, who lived in Santa Cruz for most of the 1990s before moving to San Francisco, brought his wife and new baby to Capitola Village to show them around and shop for Christmas.

He saw the banners and signs everywhere saying free three hours parking, which the city is offering this year at the request of the chamber of commerce to encourage shoppers to visit the seaside village, which is charmingly lit at night.

Gutman picked a space in a lot just beyond the Esplanade and checked the blue parking machine. Noting the machine said "free parking," he set off for a stroll with his family. Returning an hour later, he said, the car was gone. It had been towed.

He called Panther Protective Services, listed on a sign at the lot, where the man who answered said parking was free on the weekend and suggested calling police. But police told him it was not a city lot and that he should pay the tow fee.

The tow company, Dogherra's, told him it would cost $500 to retrieve the car. By this time, the sun was going down, the air was chilly and the couple didn't have food for the baby since it was in the car.


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"We couldn't even call a taxi because they wouldn't have an infant car seat," Gutman said, worrying that if the tow company kept the car over the weekend, the family would be stranded with no way of getting to a hotel.

Pleading his case with the tow company, he was told the charge would be cut to $250 and the car delivered to him.

"The tow truck driver kept berating me," Gutman said, "Saying I should have paid more attention to where I parked. ... In truth, the $250 I paid was all the money I had for Christmas presents, so my family is going to go without this year."

To Capitola Police Sgt. Cliff Sloma, it was black and white: Gutman parked in a private lot and the lot was properly posted.

The lot is owned by Barry Swenson Builder, which is collecting parking revenue while developing plans for a hotel at that site.

"Some people perceive our parking lot as a public lot," said Jesse Nickell III, vice president of Barry Swenson Builder. "It is clearly marked this is a paid parking lot. Nowhere does the signage say the City of Capitola public parking."

However, he acknowledged he did not know all public parking is free in Capitola Village for the holidays and promised to put up a temporary sign saying the Swenson lot is not offering free parking.

A hand-made sign at the entry to the lot now says: "Private parking Sorry NO FREE $10 weekdays $20 Saturday Sunday."

After hearing the story Thursday night, Councilman Dennis Norton said, "It looks like a city lot" and "I feel bad for that guy."

Will Santa and his elves will find a way to make the season bright for Jeff Gutman and family? Stay tuned.

Follow Sentinel reporter Jondi Gumz on Twitter at Twitter.com/jondigumz