In the wee hours of a June morning, truck driver Robin Metdepenningen picked the wrong place to park for a nap.
He was feeling sleepy as he drove north through Surry County. So he pulled off Interstate 77 at Exit 93 and rolled up the ramp and across Zephyr Road. He parked behind two other tractor-trailers in the gravel beside the on-ramp, doused the lights and closed his eyes. It was 4:45 a.m.
“Next thing I know, the officer bangs on the door,” said Metdepenningen, 62, of Concord. “He woke me out of a dead sleep.”
Along with three more truckers dozing nearby that morning – a fourth tractor-trailer had pulled in while he slumbered – Metdepenningen was startled to find himself the target of an unusual state campaign to punish violators of an obscure no-parking law.
The new enforcement effort was sparked by complaints to Gov. Pat McCrory from a longtime political supporter: Charlie Shelton, a business executive, Republican fundraiser and former state Board of Transportation member who lives in Surry County.
On June 3 in Raleigh, the Highway Patrol announced a statewide effort to reduce crashes that involve vehicles illegally parked along interstate highways. But the Highway Patrol had quietly launched its no-parking push three months earlier, focusing at first on I-77 in Surry and Yadkin counties.
In June, a spokesman attributed the initiative to Col. William Grey, the patrol commander, who had “traveled the state and noticed a lot of this” illegal parking. But a Highway Patrol memo in March told local troopers that the I-77 no-parking effort was in response to complaints that were “funneled through the Governor’s Office.”
Charlie Shelton uses Exit 93 when he travels to and from his Surry County home here in northwestern North Carolina. So do 80,000 people who come here each year to visit Shelton Vineyards, an award-winning winery he owns with his brother, Ed.
The Sheltons backed McCrory two decades ago in Charlotte, where they were developers and he was the mayor. And recent campaign finance records show that, during the year before he was elected governor in 2012, McCrory received at least $32,000 in political donations from the Shelton brothers, family members and Shelton company executives.
Shelton says he met with McCrory in February or early March to express concern about truckers who park along the ramps up and down I-77.
“It’s unsightly,” Shelton, 80, said in an interview. “It’s against the law to park a tractor-trailer and go to sleep there and throw your trash out on the road. ...
“I asked to talk with him about it, and I spent a little time explaining it to him. And that’s when he got the troopers involved and the DOT involved.”
McCrory’s office did not respond to email and telephone requests for comment.
The parking enforcement campaign is the second instance to become public recently in which McCrory has gotten involved in state policy on behalf of a campaign donor.
I asked to talk with him (McCrory) about it, and I spent a little time explaining it to him. And that’s when he got the troopers involved and the DOT involved.
Charlie Shelton, Republican fundraiser and Surry County businessman
The News & Observer and Charlotte Observer reported in October that McCrory had convened a meeting last year to discuss private prison maintenance contracts held by Graeme Keith of Charlotte, a friend who had contributed $12,000 to McCrory’s campaigns from 2008 through 2012.
Keith wanted to expand the contracts to all 57 prisons; the state eventually extended the contracts at three prisons, over the objections of senior prison officials.
A focused response
Shortly after McCrory’s meeting with Shelton, a March 10 Highway Patrol memo directed five troopers to “patrol the exit ramps on I-77 in Surry and Yadkin for parking violations on the ramps ... throughout your work days and not just once.”
But Shelton was not satisfied with the governor’s response.
“There still doesn’t seem to be a lot of difference – trucks are still parking on the exit ramps,” Cindy McBride, a Shelton employee, wrote in a March 31 email to McCrory. She said Shelton wanted the governor to telephone him “to see if there is anything else we can do to clean this up,” and she added his cell phone number.
“Thanks,” McCrory replied by email, in a message copied to Col. Grey and his boss, Frank Perry, the state public safety secretary. “I was told we are now checking. Now need to verify. Thanks. Pat.”
Shelton says he was concerned about “trash and safety” around the ramps all along I-77 – not just at Exit 93, and not out of concern for the family business.
“This has nothing to do with Shelton Vineyards, nor with our wine business here,” Shelton said. “That’s not my reason for this. It’s all up and down the state.”
But after Shelton registered his second complaint – and even after the initial enforcement effort had covered two counties – Highway Patrol officials responded as if their problem started and ended at Exit 93.
“For a reference point, the NB (northbound) exit ramp and NB on-ramp are directly in front of ‘Shelton Vineyards,’ ” said an April 1 memo to local troopers in Surry County. (Actually, as Shelton points out, the winery is two miles east of I-77. The Shelton brothers do own a Hampton Inn that fronts the I-77 off-ramp.)
An April 2 email to Col. Grey from Lt. Col. Billy Clayton, the patrol’s deputy commander, identified six sergeants and senior officers who were engaged along with local troopers in “a more enhanced plan of action” to solve the problem of trucks “still parking illegally on the Zephyr Road Ramp to I-77.”
Dobson police and the Surry County sheriff would be asked for help in “scheduling personnel at critical times to monitor the area for compliance,” Clayton wrote.
All of this effort was aimed at enforcing General Statute 20-140.3(5), which makes it illegal, except in an emergency, to “stop, park or leave standing any vehicle” on the right-of-way of an interstate highway. That language includes the paved and unpaved shoulders of the on- and off-ramps.
Violation is an infraction, punishable by a $25 fine plus $188 court costs.
Sgt. Mike Baker, a Highway Patrol spokesman, said Grey was not available for comment. He said troopers have stepped up enforcement of the no-parking law without cutting back on their other duties.
“They’re doing what they can to focus on all motor vehicle violations, not just the improper parking,” Baker said.
Troopers wrote just 70 tickets for illegal interstate parking across North Carolina in 2014, after having averaged 152 tickets a year since 2008, records show.
Those numbers will be higher for 2015. After logging 30 tickets statewide through the end of May, troopers kicked their parking enforcement into high gear.
According to preliminary figures from a special database the Highway Patrol created for this enforcement effort, 261 no-parking tickets were issued on interstate highways across the state during June, July and August – including 139 in Surry County alone.
Sometimes troopers wrote a dozen or more parking tickets in a single day on I-77 in Surry County, and not just at Exit 93. Apologetic troopers told truckers they had been ordered to cruise the exit ramps.
“He said that was his task that night,” trucker Trey Evans said of the trooper who woke him up at 10:47 p.m. June 3, on the Exit 100 ramp north of Dobson. “He was concentrating just on the parked commercial vehicles.”
No place to park
Dozens of citations on file in Surry County show that truckers frequently gave the same explanation for parking alongside the I-77 ramps: They had no other choice.
They were sleepy; one driver said he was weaving on the highway. Or they had run up against federal safety limits designed to fight fatigue by limiting the hours they can drive without rest.
And sometimes there was no other place to park.
Legal parking is available at commercial truck stops including one at Exit 100 that has spaces for 150 trucks, and at state-maintained rest areas including the North Carolina welcome center near the Virginia border, five miles away.
But drivers often told troopers those places and other truck stops on I-77 were filled up. That’s why Evans parked on the ramp that night.
“I was out of time,” said Evans, 41, of Sylvania, Ga. “I had to take a break. ...
“I told him: You know that fatigued driving is a hazard on the road. There was nowhere for me to park. He told me I should have planned better.”
But Evans said there was no way he could know whether he would find legal parking options that night.
The trooper told Evans he could not order him to start driving again in violation of federal trucking “hours of operation” rules. He left a sticker on Evans’ truck as a signal that other troopers should not wake him up and ticket him again.
That didn’t always work. Rookie trucker Adam Clements and his training supervisor went back to sleep after a trooper ticketed them at 9:40 p.m. June 2 on a ramp at Exit 93.
“Then during the night, another trooper came by,” said Clements, 30, of Florence, S.C. “We just showed him the ticket we had already received, and he went on.”
Truck driver Metdepenningen of Concord was philosophical about his parking ticket. He said he had not been aware that he was violating the law. And he agreed with Shelton’s complaint that drivers sometimes leave trash along the roadside.
But other truckers said the new enforcement push was unfair.
“What’s worse?” Clements asked. “Driving beyond your hours or parking where it’s not legal?”
Evans complained about paying the combined penalty of $213, but said he will put the check in the mail.
“I’ve got two kids, and I’m a single dad,” Evans said. “I do everything right and try to pay my bills. That $200 comes off my family’s table. ... I’ve never had an officer wake you up in your sleep time, unless it’s an emergency.”
What’s worse? Driving beyond your hours or parking where it’s not legal?
Adam Clements, truck driver, ticketed on Exit 93 ramp
He said he used to spend about $50,000 a year on fuel at the Exit 100 truck stop on his biweekly runs up to Boston, where he had just delivered a load of Vidalia onions when he was ticketed in June. Now Evans vows never to spend another dollar in North Carolina.
More campaign money
After Grey announced the statewide enforcement campaign in June, the Shelton brothers expressed their gratitude.
Both Ed and Charlie signed a June 5 letter of appreciation to Grey, saying they also had thanked McCrory for focusing attention on I-77 “and its exit ramps that were being abused by the trucking industry.”
Meanwhile, McCrory’s re-election campaign received checks for $3,000 apiece from Charlie and Ed Shelton on June 11 and 19, respectively. Charlie Shelton said the donations had nothing to do with their appreciation for the Highway Patrol’s parking enforcement.
“No,” Shelton said last week. “I’m trying to do something to make this state look better. I don’t need any favors out of the governor for me personally.”
He said he wasn’t ready to relax pressure on state leaders to stop truckers from parking on the I-77 ramps.
“It got better, all the ramps were cleaned up for a few months,” Shelton said. “But it’s getting worse again.
“The only way you’re going to solve it is giving tickets until you get this problem solved,” Shelton said. “It will take a year or two to get these people to understand they can’t do this. This is 2015. We don’t need that stuff going on.”
Database editor David Raynor contributed.