The Town Council could put the final touches next month on rules requiring tow companies operating downtown to prominently post their policies and fees.
The council talked Monday about the information drivers need to know if they decide to park illegally in a business’s private lot. The changes follow an N.C. Supreme Court ruling in June that the town’s attempt to set towing fees was unconstitutional. However, the town can require signs, a list of towing fees and that drivers notify police when they tow a car, the court said.
“Some people choose to take a calculated risk when they park,” council member Lee Storrow said. “When those folks are towed, because they saw signage and knew the information, they are a lot less disappointed than people who feel like they didn’t really have adequate notice.”
Council members also advocated for signs warning people against walking off after patronizing a business, and for requiring more than one sign.
“The area of town we’re talking about really is an area of town where folks from out of town come to spend time,” council member Donna Bell said. “This is a space where we have people on football days, basketball days, tournament days, who really don’t know the area and the rules like folks who live here all the time.”
George King, owner of George’s Towing & Recovery, sued the town in 2012 over the towing rules and a local ban on using cell phones while driving. The Supreme Court also rejected the town’s cell phone ban, saying the state already regulates cell phone use while driving.
The case was sent back to Orange County Superior Court, where Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos and King’s attorney, Thomas Stark, are working out the final details, said Matt Sullivan, the town’s emergency management coordinator.
George’s Towing and a second company have already posted signs meeting the new requirements, Sullivan said. King’s towing fees now include a $35 surcharge “for compliance with Chapel Hill ordinance.”
The town’s towing ordinance has been revised twice since first approved in 2002. Despite the town’s efforts to reduce predatory towing and excessive fees, the “towing relationship is one between a tow operator and private property owner,” Sullivan said.
“While we talk about the tow operators, there is a property owner involved in this discussion, and those property owners can control what goes on in their tow lots through a contract,” he said. “In most of the ones that I’ve looked at, the property owner steps back and says, ‘Tow operator, take care of my towing and my unlawful parking issues’.”
Chapel Hill Police Department records show tow truck drivers have reported towing 814 cars from private lots since August 2012. From that time to June 2014, the town also received 54 complaints involving seven companies, Police Chief Chris Blue said. Most were from drivers complaining about cash-only payments, he said. Another 10 involved inadequate signs, drivers’ attitudes and other issues, he said.
However, companies were not required to report towed cars to the department for nearly two years, while the case was being decided, he said.