No parking

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.

Roll out: In this file photo, a car gets towed in Asheville. Mounting complaints about predatory towing have prompted Council to consider reining it in. Photo by Jason Sandford

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.”

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26 thoughts on “No parking

  1. LOKEL

    My favorite part is how the police were agitated by phone calls and an increased workload ….

    to protect and to serve!

  2. Kriss

    Predatory towing has been an increasing problem in many cities, and Asheville would do well to stop the problem sooner rather than later.

    In California, where I lived for a number of years, they passed a law a couple of years ago to help stop some of these unscrupulous practices of rogue tow truck operators.

    The following is from Consumer Connection, a publication of the California Department of Consumer Affairs:

    Tow truck drivers risk their lives every day to assist stranded motorists and keep the roadways clear of disabled vehicles. Until recently, however, a lack of Federal and State laws allowed the ranks of the profession to be infiltrated by unscrupulous drivers who practice predatory towing.

    The worst cases of predatory towing involve “patrol” or “satellite” towing.
    That’s when a tow truck driver, on a tip from a spotter, tows away a car illegally parked on private property, such as a no-parking area of a shopping mall or apartment complex. If that happens, the car owner has to pay the cost of towing, storage, and other fees to get the car back.

    A new law, Assembly Bill 2210 (Goldberg, Chapter 609, Statutes of 2006) protects consumers against the worst of illegal towing. Under AB 2210, if you spot a tow truck driver taking your car, and the tow truck is still on private property, the driver must release your car to you unconditionally.

    A tow truck operator who violates this law is subject to a civil misdemeanor, a fine of $2,500, and/or three months in jail. Also, consumers who can prove they have been charged illegal or excessive towing or storage fees are entitled to recover four times the amount of those fees in small claims court.

    Below is a summary of the changes to the law under AB 2210. Remember these guidelines apply only to tows from private property.

    Consumers Towing Rights Advisory
    1. One-Hour Rule
    A vehicle must be parked for one full hour before being towed unless it is parked in a manner that interferes with an entrance or exit, is within 15 feet of a fire hydrant, or in a fire lane. The curb of a fire lane must be painted red and be clearly labeled “No Parking Fire Lane.”

    2. Unconditional Release
    If a vehicle owner encounters a tower removing his or her vehicle but the truck is not yet on a public road, the owner may demand the immediate and unconditional release of the vehicle. The law does not require the owner to provide a driver’s license.

    3. Reasonable Release Fee
    If the tower releases a vehicle that has been illegally parked, the tower is entitled to no more than one-half his normal towing fee. Local law enforcement can tell you what the normal towing fee is for your area.

    4. Ten-Mile Limit
    A tower cannot take your vehicle to a storage lot that is more than ten miles from where it was parked.

    5. Clearly Posted Warning
    A tower must have written consent from the property owner or his agent, who must have waited one hour before calling for the tow. Also, a sign not less than 17 inches by 22 inches in size should be displayed in plain view at all entrances to the property.

    It should prohibit public parking and indicate that vehicles will be removed at the owner’s expense, and post the telephone number of the local traffic law enforcement agency and the name and telephone number of each towing company that is a party to a written general towing authorization agreement with the property owner.

    6. Valid Towing Permit (photos, records, no kick-backs)
    The tower must have a valid motor carrier permit, shall make records and photographs of each tow available for law enforcement, and shall not share profits from towing with property owners who call for a vehicle removal.

    7. Credit Cards OK
    The tower must accept credit cards in payment for towing and storage fees, which must be reasonable.

    8. Compliance Within 24 Hours = One Day Maximum Storage Charge
    If the appropriate fees are paid within the initial 24 hours of storage and the storage facility fails to comply or is not open during normal business hours, then only one day’s storage fee may be charged.

    9. Reasonable Gate Fee
    The gate fee, or maximum hourly charge for releasing a vehicle after normal business hours, shall be one half the hourly tow rate charged for initially towing the vehicle, or less.

    10. Penalty for Excessive Charges
    A person who charges a vehicle owner a towing service or storage charge at an excessive rate is liable to the vehicle owner for four times the amount charged.

    If you have a complaint about a local towing company, you should contact your local law enforcement and the Better Business Bureau. You may also check the driver’s reposessor’s license on DCA’s Bureau of Security and Investigative Services or by calling (800) 952-5210. Civil claims against a tower should be filed in the Small Claims Court. The Department of Consumer Affairs also publishes a Guide to Using the Small Claims Court.

  3. DaveN

    What part of “Permitted Parking Only All OThers Towed at Owners Expense” is difficult to understand? I certainly think, however, that it should be at least as easy to get your car back as it is to have it towed…with the exception of having it delivered back to spot from which it was towed.
    I think the city could do a better job of informing visitors of the convenience of the parking garages…and how on the weekends they are a bargain.
    I tell people, as they are fumbling with change to pay the meter, that the first hour in a garage is free. Most jump in their car and head towards the parking deck.

  4. Kriss

    DaveN said, “What part of ‘Permitted Parking Only All OThers Towed at Owners Expense’ is difficult to understand?”

    “All Others Towed at Owner’s Expense” does not and should not give ANYBODY who isn’t an owner or an agent of the owner of private property the right to go onto that private property without being invited and without prior permission and remove someone else’s private property.

  5. DaveN

    Kriss, Am I mistaked in thinking that the towing companies are working in the capacity of an agent of the property owner?

  6. Webmaster

    Kriss, thanks for your information regarding the California law.

  7. Kriss

    “…Am I mistaked in thinking that the towing companies are working in the capacity of an agent of the property owner?”

    It depends. Some may be, based on whether or not they have some kind of contract with the property owner. In many cities, any towing company, contract or not, can drive around looking for someone who may be in a supposedly “tow away zone,” whether clearly marked or not, hook up, and tow away. And the vehicle owners have no choice but to pay up to get their car back – even if the vehicle owner felt he or she was legally parked at the time.

    It’s happened. I was involved in exactly that situation. Not my car, but my son’s girl friend’s. It was a really big hassle, but I finally got a refund for her from the towing company after I threatened a lawsuit and pretty much proved they were in the wrong.

  8. Rich

    We can always find street parking downtown whether is Friday dinnertime or Sunday brunch. Unless you’ve never been to even a small city, you assume that any lot not marked public is private and you’ll get towed. Maybe tourists should just park in legal spaces even if they need to walk a little. Downtown isn’t that big…

  9. cwaster

    Something definitely needs to get done about this. It’s been an awful problem for years. I’ve often wondered about the “contract” issue, and whether that’s ethical. It seems like a great scam to me. No kickbacks, one time storage fee- great ideas.

  10. granma

    Kriss, thanks for your information regarding the California law.

    People living near this tower’s lot on Roberts St frequently see him speeding on the residential section of Clingman Ave where children and elderly live. We even saw him screech to a stop at high speed and make a U-turn on a blind curve.

    Where is APD?

  11. Kriss

    Rich said, “…you assume that any lot not marked public is private and you’ll get towed.”

    I don’t think a lot of people assume that, especially if they’re visitors to the area. Besides, basing a parking policy on the assumptions of others is not wise and is not fair.

    Consider this: You’re a visitor in town one evening looking for a place to park and you see a bank. The bank is closed. They have a nice parking lot. You see other cars parked there. You see a sign at the lot that says, “Parking for customers only. All others will be towed at vehicle owner’s expense.” Would you park there? There are obviously no customers using the lot because the place is closed. Other people are parking there. What are you, as a visitor, supposed to think? Do you deserve to be towed by some rogue tow truck driver who sees this as a perfect opportunity to pounce like a shark? I don’t think so.

    The fact that private property owners want to restrict parking on their property is fine; they have a right to do this, and that is not the issue. The issue is how many opportunistic tow truck operators have taken unfair advantage of this and turned it into a very lucrative enterprise. Something that in many cases is nothing short of legalized extortion.

  12. Kriss

    In response to cwaster, it seems to me that if the owner of private property has a written contract with a towing company which allows the tower to come onto the owner’s property and remove unauthorized vehicles, then it would be legal and OK for them to do that. But that said, there needs to be a lot more guidelines to be followed and limitations placed on such actions that will ensure such power is not abused. At the very least, it should be illegal for any tow truck driver to tow a vehicle without the express written authority from the property owner. Otherwise, how can this be anything less than auto theft and extortion?

  13. Kriss

    In response to granma, it is apparent that many towers must think they’re above the law, because it looks like they can do pretty much anything they want with impunity, things that would be illegal for anyone else.

  14. cwaster

    Kriss wrote:

    “In response to granma, it is apparent that many towers must think they’re above the law, because it looks like they can do pretty much anything they want with impunity, things that would be illegal for anyone else.”

    Exactly. Very well put in my opinion.

  15. Althea

    At night, I frequently use a parking lot downtown that is friendly to after-hours parking. One day, without thinking, I parked there during the day, even though it was clearly posted that there was to be no public parking during that time. I returned to my car to find a ticket stating that I was being given a warning and that if my car was found in the lot again during the day that it would be towed. Needless to say, I was thankful that my metal slip didn’t earn me tow fees that I couldn’t afford, and I was very appreciative that they had handled it this way. I respected that they were willing to work with me, and I haven’t been back during the day. A system such as this could possibly be helpful for all of downtown. It would stop immediate tickets for one-time tourist parkers and eliminate problems caused when someone simply didn’t see a posted sign. They wouldn’t be able to claim ignorance twice.

  16. My problem is, some of the same lots that get your car towed by day are where you are supposed to park at night. The same signs are still up, saying I’m going to get towed, but yet I don’t there. So then the whole function of ‘tow warning signs’ gets blurred and I end up on pins and needles, day and night, not knowing which signs are real and which are not.

    The parking lot between Echo Mountain and Hookah Joe’s, for example. And also the one across from The Grove House where Boiler Room and Scandals are located.

  17. tgh60

    Is this the same Kriss who walks barefoot around town?

    To visitors and locals who go downtown at night. Park on tne street for free, or use the Rankin St garage,which only costs a dollar. DO NOT PARK in places with the signs. Simple actually.

  18. Kriss

    “Is this the same Kriss who walks barefoot around town?”

    Well, I’m actually not “around town” all that often, but if I were, I would indeed be barefoot, as I always am.

    But getting back to the topic, I don’t agree with you that the parking solution is “simple actually.” If it were, why would there be so many complaints, and why would City Council be getting ready to address the issue?

    Upon re-reading the article above, I wanted to also comment on one thing that was said.

    One of the towing company spokespersons suggested that he’d be fine with accepting credit card payments if local law made it “a criminal offense to reverse credit card charges on a towing company.”

    First, no one can “reverse” credit card charges. What one can do is dispute credit card charges. A disputed charge is then investigated and if found in error or unjustified it will then be reversed. Which means that if the towing company has no way to prove it was a legitimate tow, it probably would be reversed. If the towing companies’ operations were truly above reproach, fair, and non-predatory, they would have no problem accepting credit cards, because if it came to a dispute, they would have no problem proving they were in the right and that the charge was justified.

    Second, IANAL, but consumers have the right to dispute credit card charges under the Fair Credit Billing Act, a federal law. Obviously the towing company spokesperson isn’t familiar with that law, otherwise he would have realized no local government can override any of these consumer rights, especially only for the benefit of some local business operation which already has a reputation for taking unfair advantage of Asheville visitors and residents alike.

  19. tgh60

    It is simple actually. People need to stop parking in places with tow away signs. The reason for the complaints? Yankee visitors are used to whining. Simple. They should stay up in Nu Yawk. Law abiding Southerners have no complaints.

  20. Kriss

    Amazing logic and proposed solution to the problem, tgh60. It’s surprising nobody else has thought of that. Keeping them whinin’ yankees away would definitely end the predatory towing problem, I’m sure.

  21. Reality Check

    There needs to be clear rules on what towing companies can do. No doubt. I wonder what the ‘all cash’ thing is about .. perhaps the towing company isn’t planning to claim the income on their taxes? Are they avoiding local taxes too? Perhaps someone should look into that.

    However, there is a personal responsibility issue here. The Westphal’s made a series of blunders and are blaming everyone else. Too scared to go downtown?! Just watch where you park.

  22. Kriss

    “I wonder what the ‘all cash’ thing is about .. perhaps the towing company isn’t planning to claim the income on their taxes?”

    There may very well be a lot of that going on by a business that requires cash only. But I think the main reason – and that was made perfectly clear by Mr. Jones of All-Safe Towing – is the towing companies do not want to deal with trying to fight a credit card dispute, which involves proving their actions were above-board and justified – in many cases not something they can easily do.

    “The Westphal’s made a series of blunders and are blaming everyone else.”

    Perhaps. However, if Asheville had the same predatory towing protection ordinance that Raleigh has, or that many other cities as well as states have, it’s doubtful under those circumstances the Westphal’s vehicle would have gotten towed at all.

    The thing is, how is it that towing companies have so much power? That is, power to act as their own police, judge, jury, and executioner, without so much as the opportunity for a court hearing. Indeed, maybe the vehicle owner in many cases is “guilty” of something – perhaps ignorance, perhaps poor judgment. But in other cases, the vehicle owner may be completely innocent based on all the facts and circumstances. But current towing policies and practices around Asheville are apparently based not only on “guilty until proven innocent,” but there is no opportunity for “proven innocent” to ever even enter the picture.

    Even the IRS cannot come onto private property and remove someone else’s private property without proper and timely notices and without the opportunity of being able to defend oneself at a hearing or court of law. How is it that towing companies are able to take someone’s property on a regular basis and without having to answer to anyone for their actions?

  23. Kriss

    Thanks Jon for staying on top of this problem. I hope Mountain Xpress continues to report what’s going on, as I feel it’s a very important issue for our community.

  24. J Spence

    February 27, 2009
    Re: Predatory Towing in Asheville, NC
    144 Biltmore Ave.
    To whom it may concern:
    I was a victim of predatory towing last night in Asheville, some friends and I stopped at the Dripolator Coffee House on Biltmore Ave, a café that I frequent. We parked in the lot that was designed for the customers of the establishments in that building. My friends and I proceeded to go into the Dripolator and order our beverages, no sooner than I had sat down, a gentleman ran into the Dripolator and exclaimed “There is a mini-van being towed”, I jumped up, ran outside, and saw our vehicle hooked up to the tow truck, mind you, not even on the bed of the tow truck yet. I yelled out, “Whoa, whoa, what are you doing? Stop it! I haven’t even been parked here for a minute yet! Let me move it, and park somewhere else” The gentleman, -and it behooves me to describe him as such- that was on the passenger side of the tow truck said, “It will be $125.00 to get your vehicle unhooked, or if we take it to the yard, it will be $175.00 and $3.00 an hour until you’re able to get it.” I stood there in disbelief for about 30 seconds, before I, again, tried to reason with this guy. Telling him that, “I work at a non-profit organization and that this is a company vehicle, and we just can’t afford to pay this!” Well, of course, he wouldn’t budge, and kept robotically repeating his previous statement. Thank God, one of my friends had a 100 dollar bill on him; I took out my last 20 dollars, and received 5 dollars from another friend. We begrudgingly paid this predator $125.00 cash and received a receipt with no company info, I, then, instructed the Shark to please include all company information, which, in turn, he wrote Davis Automotive & Towing on the top of the receipt. With our vehicle finally free, the tow truck left and the gentleman had the audacity to walk across the parking lot and get into a car that was parked directly behind ours!!! He had been sitting there the entire time, waiting on someone to park in this space! And without a murmur of warning to us about what was about to take place, he patiently waited for us to leave the parking lot and immediately called his crony to come get our vehicle.
    There has got to be some law of ethics somewhere that prevents this situation from happening! This guy was parked in a parking space, taking up space for someone else to park, just waiting for the next victim! I wonder how many of these “spotters” are strategically placed around town preying on unsuspected citizens & tourists.
    What can be done to prevent this from happening to others?
    What’s more, what can I do to seek restitution for my own infuriating encounter?

    Sincerely,

    J E. Spence
    Grazingpangea@yahoo.com

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