Apparently, it keeps happening. After parking in seemingly available downtown lots, Asheville residents and visitors alike have returned to find their cars gone — towed by companies hired by the lot owners to keep unauthorized vehicles off their property. And when the owner of an offending vehicle catches the tow-truck driver in the act of hauling off his or her car, altercations and arguments have ensued.
At the Asheville City Council’s Sept. 16 work session, both Mayor Charles Worley and City Council members said they’d heard from disgruntled vehicle owners maintaining that there was no sign in evidence prohibiting parking in the contested spot, leading some to speculate that something underhanded was at work.
The phenomenon known as predatory towing has prompted irate auto owners to call and write to city officials. A steady stream of letters has also appeared in the pages of Mountain Xpress.
Such complaints — especially the ones from tourists swearing off future visits to Asheville — have gotten the attention of City Council, which last year asked City Attorney Bob Oast to look into the situation.
A proposed ordinance brought to Council by Oast would require property owners to post signs warning drivers of the intent to tow and giving the towing company’s phone number. Council members asked that the signs also show the hours during which cars may be towed and how much the towing company charges owners to reclaim their vehicles.
The ordinance would focus on what Oast has called the problem spots: the central business district and Biltmore Village.
The law, noted Oast, would not require property owners to post signs; instead, it would prohibit towing from an unposted lot — and property owners, not towing companies, would be liable. The fines for violators would begin at $100 and jump to $200 for a second offense within a year and $300 for a third such offense. Illegally towing three cars in one night would trigger a $600 fine.
Under the draft ordinance, vehicle owners would still be stuck with whatever fee a towing company charged them to retrieve their cars; fines paid by lot owners would go to the city. And though Oast pointed out that penalized parkers could take lot owners or towing companies to court in an attempt to recover their money, the ordinance contains no reimbursement mechanism.
Council member Holly Jones took issue with that lack, doubting that tourists would pursue the issue from distant hometowns and states.
“At the end of the day, we get some cash, but the poor fellow out there gets left in a lurch,” she said.
And if a motorist discovered an illegal tow in progress, Worley speculated that the ordinance could give police the power to stop it.
Also at issue, noted Oast, is a delicate aesthetic balance. In order to be effective, the signs must be clearly visible. But if they’re too conspicuous, it could lead to a downtown speckled with threatening signs. There’s also the matter of property rights: Owners, said Oast, have the right to prohibit parking on their property.
“It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s what we can do right now,” Oast observed. Even so, the proposed ordinance has already required permission from Raleigh. It was part of the legislative agenda the city submitted to state leaders at the beginning of the year; the granting legislation was approved just this summer. “We have very little ability to regulate this at a local level,” Oast pointed out. He hat The interstate-commerce clause of the state constitution takes regulatory power over towing companies out of the hands of cities, Oast told Xpress.
When pressed for a time line, Oast said he envisioned enforcement beginning six months after a measure was passed, allowing time for a public-relations campaign to inform property owners about the changes. Worley, however, suggested shortening that time to get the measures implemented faster.
“The problem is so rampant,” he observed. “I’d like to see a shorter time period.”
People parking in lots are not the only ones who may get some relief from roving parking hazards. A city traffic official is suggesting capping the cumulative fines from unpaid parking tickets. The $10 parking tickets issued by the city increase their fines by $25 every 30 days they remain unpaid, snowballing rapidly paying them becomes prohibitive for the ticket holder.
“Basically … they go on forever,” said Transit and Parking Services Director Bruce Black. “They just keep accumulating and accumulating and accumulating.” After six months, a $10 ticket can turn into a $160 hit.
As a result, said Black, the city’s collection rate for overdue parking fines is extremely low: Less than 5 percent of parking tickets that remain unpaid past the 90-day mark ever get paid. If a vehicle owner accrues three parking tickets that go unpaid for more than 90 days, the city can “boot” the car, disabling it until yet another fine is paid to unlock it — but only if the car is once again parked illegally. Hoping to increase that rate to 50 percent, Black proposed capping the fine increases after 90 days; a $10 fine would top out at $85. At that point, he explained, the case would be turned over to the city Finance Department, which handles collections. By making the fines more reasonable, Black hopes the city can actually collect more money from parking violations. He also told Council that he’d like to streamline the notification process by bringing it under his department’s control. An outside service now notifies holders of unpaid tickets that the $10 fine will jump to $35 after 30 days.
And capping parking fines, noted Black, could open the door for the city to begin collecting overdue fines through a state program that pulls money owed directly out of state tax returns.
If Council approves the cap on fines, it will take effect immediately, but there has been no talk of making it retroactive, Black said later.
Council will consider both issues at its Sept. 23 formal session.