Is the "ZL’ mystique endangered? |

Is the "ZL’ mystique endangered?

Reid Williams
Summit Daily/Kara K. PearsonA license plate with the letters "ZL" is a mark of prestige in Summit County, denoting that the driver of the car has been a Summit County resident for a long time. A new state law may speed the demise of the sought-after sequence.

SUMMIT COUNTY – Those who truly can be considered “locals,” and those who take an interest in that debatable definition, know the letters “ZL” on a license plate in the traffic ahead of them means one thing: The owner of that car was here long before there was traffic to wait in.

The longtime residents of Summit County have watched as generations of transplants have immigrated to the High Country – and they’ve been able to pick them out by their license plates. The ZLs watched the ZRs come. Both groups watched the WPAs and WPBs move in. Don’t forget about the WNZs. And now there are more combos, like BEF and others – so many that one can hardly keep track.

In a place – a whole state, in fact – where people pride themselves on how long they’ve lived here, it should come as no surprise that people try to attach themselves to that pioneer, ZL mystique.

“You can’t blame people for being nostalgic,” said Helen Foote of the Frisco emeritus family that moved here in 1946. (Helen, at 85, doesn’t drive anymore and doesn’t have a car to put a ZL plate on, by the way.)

ZL figures prominently in the editorial column of the Summit County Independent newspaper. It’s common to see white, oval, European-style bumper stickers emblazoning citizens’ vehicles, with ZL in block letters proclaiming their “localness.” And now, some people are going even further.

Employees at the Frisco office of the state’s department of motor vehicles report a steady flow of people obtaining ZL plates, but not in the typical fashion. Some drivers are getting personalized plates. They say “ZL SKIR” or “ZL SON,” or other variations that make claims at the prestige the original plates conferred.

And there was some prestige, according to Dillon resident Johnny Younger. Younger moved to Summit County in 1957, just in time to have to move so the Dillon Reservoir could be filled. He still has ZL plates – three of them (241, 242 and 306, for the record).

“You could spot a newcomer by the numbers on his plate,” Younger said. “The thing that everybody wanted was a plate that was below 100. But the only way you could get one was when somebody passed away. But he usually passed it on to his wife or his kid. I just kept mine so I wouldn’t have to pay for the new ones.”

Younger describes a time when many Denver residents used to claim they lived in the county just to get ZL plates. Not only did ZL plates keep you from getting parking tickets in Summit County, Younger said, it made Denver merchants happy to see that someone had driven so far to give them business.

But not everybody understands the draw of the letters. Younger said a man once approached him and asked why he didn’t get new plates. Younger then explained the prestige involved in having ZL plates.

“He said that was silly,” Younger recalled. “He’d only lived here a couple years and he thought he was an old-timer.”

The day could be approaching when the ZL plates are no more. A bill passed by the state Legislature earlier this year directly addresses these types of plates, known as “2-4” plates (two alphabetic characters and up to four numerals). The bill repeals an earlier law that allowed people to continue using the plates and changes the circumstances under which people can renew them.

According to DMV spokeswoman Diane Reimer, about 65,000 of the “2-4” plates exist in Colorado, many more than just the ZL ones. Over the six or so decades the plates have been issued, Reimer said, duplicates were issued. For instance, a family with a car, a truck and an RV might have identical plates on each vehicle.

“There’s about 2,800 duplicates out there,” Reimer said. “In recognizing this, the Legislature has said we can’t have that.”

Reimer notes the new law will affect a small number of people – an extremely small number in Summit County. She said the state agency will have a plan formulated by the first of the year to handle the problem.

Local DMV employees said there is a possibility that the whole alpha-numeric sequence could be ending – both traditionally issued and personalized plates. Employees said they were getting mixed messages from state offices, including the possibility that the ZL sequence would be phased out.

But not to worry: That wouldn’t happen for several years, they said, because the state’s tight financial situation has officials looking for ways to limit the number of new license plates that need to be manufactured.

Reid Williams can be reached at (970) 668-3998, ext. 237, or

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