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Carolina Beach To Review Regulations To Prohibit Predatory Towing

Managing Editor

CAROLINA BEACH -  In Carolina Beach you can find yourself stranded within as little as five minutes and facing a tow bill in the hundreds of dollars. Almost like a large city, small town Carolina Beach has many private parking lots monitored by wrecker companies waiting in the wings to hook up and impound vehicles; especially in the busy summer months.
The Carolina Beach Town Council has tackled this issue several times over the years. Most recently in 2009 and 2007.
The Council discussed the issue at their Tuesday February 19, meeting to once again address the issue of "predatory towing."
Planning Director Ed Parvin said, "Police are required to receive a copy of the contract between a private property owner and a towing company. The police department has to get notice, a fax, each time a car is towed. That lets the police know" it was towed and not stolen.
There are also rules requiring signs where towing is enforced.
Parvin said at one time towing companies would tow vehicles to a shopping center parking lot before towing them off the Island. Rules were adopted to stop that practice by requiring vehicles to only be towed to a secure facility.
He explained that if a person can pay, the tow truck driver has to release their vehicle if approached before the vehicle is towed. They can charge up to $50. The same applies if the tow truck has not yet left the Island.
Tow storage lots must be located within 20 miles of Town limits and someone has to be on call 24 hours a day seven days a week to release the vehicle within 45 minutes. Storage fees can't be charged for the first 24 hours. Also, tow truck drivers must accept all forms of payment including cash, credit cards, and personal checks.
Mayor Bob Lewis said the Town does a lot to attract visitors to the tourism based economy and tourists get a bad taste saying they will never return.
Some people have reported being towed within minutes of stopping at a condo building to pick someone up or being told their parking passes were not located in the proper location.
Lewis said the Town should hold wrecker services to the requirement to accept credit card payments.
He said the cities of Charlotte and Raleigh have adopted rules requiring, "Towing by complaint" which means towing services can't sit in a parking lot and tow vehicles without being contacted with a complaint whether or not the vehicle is in violation.
Lewis said this concerns companies that come to the Island in the busy summer months and circle a parking lot waiting to snatch vehicles and that type of predatory practice does not leave a good impression with visitors.
Currently there is only one approved storage lot on the Island. The zoning ordinance does permit the creation of new lots with permission from the Town.
Parvin said if the Town is going to change the rules the Town could work to educate towing companies in the process.
Councilman Shuttleworth said around 20% are probably legitimate towing situations, but the rest are people stopping in to drop off luggage or pick up people from a location.
Police Chief Kirt Bartley said there are many cases where vehicles have been towed while people on vacation drop off their luggage at a condo and had not yet placed their parking pass in the vehicle.
Town Attorney Lawrence Cragie said there have been legal challenges to regulations that Town's adopt. For example, Chapel Hill tried to adopt an ordinance regulating towing on private property and required the tow truck owners to call the police station when they towed a vehicle. A superior court judge in Orange County found that ordinance invalid because it contradicted Chapel Hill's ban on driving with a cell phone.
He said, "The towing industry will fight aggressively for their freedom to operate in a market place free of regulation."
He requested the Council to ask the Police Chief and Town Manager to work with his office to ensure the validity of any such regulations.
He said, "You can place reasonable regulations on being able to tow its just a question of how far you can go."
The Council agreed to research the issue in more detail regarding existing and any additional regulations to limit predatory towing.

(Photo: The District of Columbia)