Town to begin enforcing towing ordinance

Jun. 20, 2013 @ 03:01 PM

Starting Monday, towing companies doing business in town can charge motorists no more than $125 to retrieve cars towed from private lots downtown.
Tow company owners were able to charge any amount they wanted after Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson sided with George’s Towing and Recovery in its complaint against the town’s towing ordinance.
But earlier this month, a three-judge state Court of Appeals panel overruled Hudson, accepting the town’s argument that it has the authority to enforce its towing ordinance under police powers granting municipalities the right to “prohibit, regulate, or abate acts, omissions, or conditions detrimental to the health, safety or welfare of its citizens.”
For motorists, that means an end to predatory towing fees, which some claimed had climbed to as high as $300 per tow.
While the town will begin enforcement of its towing ordinance Monday, it has decided to delay enacting its cellphone ban, which George’s Towing also challenged, until Oct. 1.
It did so in anticipation of the towing company seeking a discretionary review of the state Court of Appeals’ decision from the state Supreme Court.
And while there is a chance the higher court could rule against Chapel Hill on both points, the Town Council felt more comfortable moving forward with the towing ordinance than it did the cellphone ban.
The council voted to delay enacting the cellphone ban until October after some members expressed reservation about enforcing it before the state Supreme Court has issued an opinion.
They worried that the town would spend staff time preparing to enforce the ordinance and erecting signs notifying motorists of its existence only to have the Supreme Court rule against the town.
“We don’t really know what the [state] Supreme Court will do with it [cellphone ban],” said Councilwoman Sally Greene. “I would just prefer to let that whole legal process on the cellphone ordinance run its legal course before we step back in.”
Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt added that the town already has a lot of infrastructure around the towing ordinance because the town has had such an ordinance in the recent past. 
“We’re not talking about the expenditure of a lot of tax dollars around that either or a lot of staff time,” Kleinschmidt said of enforcing the towing ordinance.
George King, the owner of George’s Towing, has said he intends to seek a discretionary review of the state Court of Appeals ruling. 
Town Attorney Ralph Karpinos said George’s Towing has until early July to petition the state Supreme Court for such a review.
Karpinos said he would expect the Supreme Court to render a decision sometime in early fall.
Meanwhile, King has said he might be forced out of business if the towing ordinance is allowed to stand.
“I will not be able to run my trucks and hire people to work,” King said on the day the state Court of Appeals handed down its ruling.
King currently charges motorists $180 to retrieve cars towed from the private lots he monitors in downtown Chapel Hill.
In addition to setting the maximum fee for towing a vehicle from a private lot at $125, the town’s amended ordinance establishes a $50 fee for vehicles released to an owner after being hooked to a tow truck but before it is towed and a $20 per day storage fee after the first 24 hours.
It also mandates that tow truck drivers accept credit card payments as well as cash payments, that operators notify police when towing vehicles, and it restricts vehicles from being towed to lots farther than 15 miles outside of town limits.