CHAPEL HILL — Lynne Koch said she could barely understand the person who answered the phone after her car was towed from a Franklin Street parking lot last month.
“And then he said ‘$250 cash,’ ” she said.
The Town of Chapel Hill has received 16 complaints about towing since a judge put the town’s towing rules on hold in May, and as of Thursday, ruled them unconstitutional regulation of trade.
The owner of George’s Towing, George King, who successfully challenged the town ordinance, was unavailable Friday. All but three of the complaints concern George’s, a town spokeswoman said.
King’s attorney, Thomas Stark, said George’s adopted two fees: $150 for vehicles up to 4,000 pounds and $250 for those over 4,000 pounds to compensate for greater wear on its trucks.
Rates are partly market driven and, in some parts of the country, towing fees can run $300, he said.
But George’s fees have drawn “a few complaints,” Stark said, and the company is reviewing them.
The $250 fee is twice the $125 fee the Town Council set in the ordinance and lists on its website. That ordinance also would have required companies to accept credit cards, among other measures.
The town received several complaints last month about people being charged $250.
“It sure ruined a nice evening to come to the empty parking spot of my friend, get $250 from SECU, drive out in the country to retrieve the car, after spending a fair amount of money on a nice dinner in downtown CH,” Sally Massengale told the Town Council in a July 19 email.
Koch, who lives outside Columbia, S.C., was visiting Chapel Hill for the first time with her son. She parked her Chrysler Town and Country outside Noodles & Company on West Franklin Street and walked across the street to Chipotle. She said she saw signs on the Noodles lot, but they didn’t say which businesses the lot served, only a range of addresses, and the lot was half empty. While her son and a friend ate at Chipotle she stopped in to Panera Bread next door.
“As I came out, one of the boys said, ‘Your van is missing.’ ”
Koch said she found an ATM machine but had to call George’s four or five times to find the lot.
“You could hardly see it,” she said, describing a gate with barbed wire and a lot so muddy she had to take her shoes off before getting back in the car.
“I’m 55 years old, and I’ve never been towed in my life,” she said. “Obviously I try not to park in places that are not appropriate.”
Koch thinks towing companies should post signs listing the businesses they serve.
“There’s a need for them,” she said. “But they’re exploiting that situation. It seems like the Wild Wild West. There’s just no rules for them.”
The Town Council will now consider whether to appeal the judge’s ruling – it has 30 days, Stark said – or try revising its rules.
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said the town looked at area towing fees when it raised the towing fee from $100 to $125. Charging $250 is “outrageous,” he said.
But he’s more concerned the judge’s ruling removes the town’s regulatory power and leaves pricing and other policies to the free market.
“It’s not a market scenario,” he said, because people getting towed are not buying anything. “It’s not selling widgets.”