Pam Westphal came to Asheville in October, excited about taking in a mountain autumn and experiencing the city’s vibrant downtown scene. But like so many other tourists, she left upset about having her car towed from a private parking lot.
Westphal’s experience mirrors that of an untold number of visitors to Asheville, even as elected officials have struggled to find an effective way to regulate local towing companies that many believe take advantage of illegal parkers. The problem has festered for years, consistently sparking complaints, and at this point it’s having a negative impact on local tourism, according to a September report to City Council.
Council members appear ready to respond with a number of changes to local regulations. City Council will probably consider adopting new rules in January or February. And for visitors like Westphal, the changes can’t come soon enough.
“Way to spoil Asheville for us”
Westphal and her husband, Joe, checked into a hotel on the outskirts of Asheville and headed downtown, eager to sample the fare at Zambra, a Walnut Street restaurant they’d heard rave reviews about from a friend. The couple parked in the lot next to the restaurant—a private lot with spaces reserved for the residents who live in the apartments up above.
Signage in the lot warns that nonpermitted vehicles will be towed, and there is a city parking garage right across the street. But some signage is broken or posted in less conspicuous places.
In any case, after checking out the restaurant, the Wisconsin couple decided on a window seat at the Bier Garden on Haywood Street, just up the hill from Zambra. The Westphals ordered drinks and turned to look out the street-side window—just in time to watch a tow truck drag their vehicle away.
Joe Westphal jogged down to check out the parking lot, spotted a warning sign and wrote down the towing company’s phone number. A call to All-Safe Towing & Recovery brought more bad news: It would cost them a $125 fee, plus a $25 storage charge, to get their car back.
The Westphals took a cab to the company’s facility on Roberts Street, arriving shortly after 7 p.m., then realized there was nobody at All-Safe. Stuck without a cell phone—one was back in their hotel room, the other in their towed vehicle—they waited for a while until they spied the pastor leaving the Asheville United Christian Church. He offered a phone, and an All-Safe representative said he’d be there within 10 minutes.
The couple had the $150 in cash, and they paid up and retrieved their vehicle. But the ordeal, they say, ruined their Asheville experience.
“We would have loved to go back downtown, but I was too scared to do it, so we went to our hotel and walked next door to Outback,” Pam Westphal wrote in an e-mail to Asheville City Council members and the Asheville Area Chamber of Commerce. “We would have spent a lot more money in the town, but I wouldn’t go near the downtown area. We wanted to shop; we were told about the artsy area and great eating. But there was no way I could do it,” she wrote.
“What a way to spoil Asheville for us.”
Searching for a solution
The Westphal story is an all-too-familiar one to City Council members. Vice Mayor Jan Davis, who owns a tire store on Patton Avenue, says he receives one or two e-mails a month from unhappy visitors who liken the towing companies to “sharks” feeding on unsuspecting tourists.
But Davis sees the issue as a double-edged sword. On the one hand, the towing company’s actions help “create a perception” that Asheville is unfriendly to tourists, he says. On the other hand, the fact is that lots of people are parking illegally downtown, he notes, and that creates headaches for both the owners of those properties and the folks who pay to park there.
Still, says Davis, in a tourist town that’s sometimes “challenged with parking,” the issue must be addressed. “As a visitor, I probably would not come back if my car was towed, and I would tell other people not to come downtown.”
Kelly Miller, executive director of the Asheville Convention & Visitors Bureau, included the towing problem in a Sept. 26 report to City Council about issues affecting local tourism. Miller’s report mentions towing, along with overall cleanliness and panhandling downtown. “We have got to collectively get our arms around the towing situation,” the report states.
“The installation of the Wayfinding Project [funded by the Buncombe County Tourism Development Authority] will help direct traffic to public lots, so this should offer some relief. Still, we receive a fair number of letters from both extremely upset visitors and residents whose autos have been towed. The Chamber is ready to roll up its collective sleeves with other groups to come up with deployable solutions,” Miller writes.
City Attorney Bob Oast, who plans to make suggestions to City Council early next year, says he’s modeling his proposal on the city of Raleigh’s ordinance governing towing companies. That law requires the companies to accept debit and credit cards as well as cash, says Oast, and to be on call 24 hours a day, return phone calls within 15 minutes and release impounded vehicles within 45 minutes. Raleigh’s ordinance also prohibits such companies from hauling off a vehicle if the owner shows up while it’s being towed, capping the fee they can charge in such cases at $50. Some cities go a step further, requiring towing companies to notify the police when a car is removed.
Asheville already requires owners of private lots to post conspicuous signs warning people that they could get towed, and those rules may be tweaked.
Oast says he plans to meet with owners of parking lots and towing companies, downtown residents and other downtown groups before taking suggestions to elected officials.
“We want what’s right”
Danny Jones, the manager of All-Safe Towing, says that as far as he’s concerned, those kinds of changes are old hat.
“We want what’s right and what’s fair,” says Jones. Asked about Asheville’s possible revisions to its ordinance, he declares, “We’re way ahead of them.”
Jones says his company used to accept credit or debit cards for payment, but customers would often stop payment on checks or have credit-card companies reverse the charges once they got their vehicle back. “Over half of customers reversed charges,” he reports, adding that he’d be fine with such a requirement if the local law went a step further, making it a criminal offense to reverse credit card charges on a towing company. The cash-only payment requirement, he points out, is also a drain on his resources, because his drivers spend valuable time and gas taking motorists to an ATM to get cash.
All-Safe, notes Jones, already charges a smaller fee ($40 or $50) out of “a sense of fairness” if a person arrives while their car is getting hooked up to the tow truck. But such situations can get ugly, he adds, saying it’s not uncommon for people to “want to beat my driver up and do damage to the truck. The more trouble someone starts, the less we’re apt to assist.”
And about five years ago, the company tried notifying police when it towed a vehicle, Jones reports. That lasted, he says, until “I took a cussing” from a police officer that left him flabbergasted. The officer was apparently agitated by the number of phone calls he was receiving and the additional workload it caused.
As for working with the city to address the problem, Jones says he doubts he’ll be included in any discussion about potential changes.
“They’ll do what Raleigh’s doing,” he predicts. “They’ve never called us about anything.”