Contested ordinances moving forward

Jun. 08, 2013 @ 01:31 PM

A state Court of Appeals panel has given the Town of Chapel Hill the green light to move ahead on two ordinances the council passed last year, but which have been stalled by court cases.
A three-judge panel of the appeals court overruled Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson’s ruling against the town’s towing ordinance, and said the judge acted prematurely in ruling against a stringent ban on cellphone use while driving.
The cell-phone debate is far from over.
But it appears the towing ordinance is set to go into full effect next month.
And that will be a relief for motorists, especially visitors, who run afoul of the aggressive “no parking” zones in a town short on parking space in the best of times and starved for it during peak-demand moments.
Owners whose cars had been towed for parking in illegal spaces or for excessive time had long complained about what many saw as price-gouging by towing companies. Tales of fees of hundreds of dollars and being expected to travel to inconvenient, out-of-the way impoundment garages, often at odd hours, roiled citizens and enlisted the support of the city council.
The new rules, on hold since a towing company challenged the new ordinance and won the first round in Hudson’s court, would prohibit towing companies from charging more than $125 for towing a car from a private lot.
If an owner showed up while his or her car was being hooked to a tow truck, the tower could charge no more than $50 to release the car at that point. Many owners had been exasperated by arriving just a few moments too late to rescue their car from the tow hook, only to be charged fees many felt were exorbitant at that point.
Those fees seem reasonable to us, as they did to the Town Council. But George King, owner of George’s Towing, which went to court to block the ordinance, says being held to that maximum fee could put him out of business.
King said he charges $180 to retrieve cars towed from private lots he’s contracted to monitor downtown. The town may need to be open to assessing how the new fees are working.
But anyone who has ever been towed or fear they might be in the parking scramble in the southern part of heaven will breathe a sigh of relief when the ordinance goes into effect. We hope towing operators will heed Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos’ and Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt’s suggestion they start abiding by the new fees even before the law takes effect in a couple of weeks.
The court’s ruling was far less definitive on the cellphone ban, simply concluding that the plaintiff, again George’s Towing, couldn’t bring suit unless he had actually been charged with violating the ordinance.
Whether the town will move forward enforcement is unclear. The ordinance’s prime champion, Penny Rich, has left the council for the Orange County Board of Commissioners, and the sweep of the ordinance – which even bans use of hands-free devices – was controversial.
This may well provide an opportunity for the town to rein in a ban that many, including Kleinschmidt, felt went too far.