‘Predatory’ Towing Near Parade Bums Many on Memorial Day

May 28, 2014 6:20 PM32 comments
(Courtesy photo)

(Courtesy photo)

An otherwise flawless, warm and clear annual Memorial Day parade and festival in downtown Falls Church Monday was once again this year marred by 23 tows of vehicles from private lots adjacent the site, Falls Church City Police have reported.

In most cases, these are what are called “predatory tows,” cases where the vehicle owner was unaware of the risk of a tow despite mandatory signage at the sites. Using a spotter, the towing company responds swiftly whenever someone parks and steps off the site, even for just a few minutes. A chronic problem, City officials say there’s little they’ve been able to do to prevent the practice.

This Monday, 16 tows occurred at the Broaddale Shopping Center in the 300 block of W. Broad St. The Rockville-based owner of the strip mall, Nellis Properties, has repeatedly insisted on its right to contract Pete’s Towing of Falls Church for such efforts, according to Becky Witsman of the City’s Economic Development office.

Witsman said that efforts at securing a special moratorium on the City’s biggest annual event on Memorial Day have likewise been unsuccessful.

There is signage at the site, but clearly many don’t notice it. The sign at the Virginia Avenue entrance to the center is not directly at the entrance, but recessed inside the site.

The businesses in the strip mall are divided about the virtues of the towing policy, Witsman said. Some think it’s important to keep parking spaces open for customers. Others feel it has a longer-term effect of driving away business.

One issue, according to Witsman, is the fact that the property owner does not have to charge for the service, but simply to authorize its use.

In a new development this year, a Falls Church citizen was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct by Falls Church Police when, on Monday afternoon, she tried to dissuade the towers from removing cars from the Broaddale Center.

Rita Semenov told the News-Press she was walking home following the Memorial Day service in front of the community center filled with emotion from the event. She said she tried to block a towing she saw was underway by sitting in a car that had been prepped for the tow, in one case, and sitting on the hood of a car, in another.

She said in the course of an hour she was there, she saw five cars towed, one every 12 minutes, all by a single tow truck occurring unbeknownst to the car owners.

When police were called to remove her from obstructing what was going on, she was told she had five minutes to step aside, or be arrested. When she was arrested it was for a Class 1 misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in prison. She was also banned from the property.

In March 2010, the F.C. City Council approved a new towing ordinance that required towing companies to photograph a vehicle in alleged violation and to notify police of each impending tow. A plan to require two authorizing signatures was dropped when it was learned the towing company would have them pre-signed and readily available, Witsman said.

Also in 2010, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran led an effort to achieve tougher anti-predatory towing legislation in the U.S. Congress and among allies in the Richmond legislature. Those led to minimal improvements, mostly limited to signage requirements and redoubled efforts at negotiated restrictions.

  • vseidita

    I am still boycotting the Broaddale Shopping Center. It is the only way we can let these business owners know that we are horrified by what this practice does to the reputation of our otherwise friendly littke city.

    • Dave

      All you are doing is hurting the businesses at the property; Famous Dave’s, Chipotle, Starbucks, etc… The businesses play no part in the towing; it is a written agreement between the tow company and the property OWNER. What really needs change are the laws that allow this to happen so easily. If the signs aren’t easily visible that should change. In reality; everyone should know that if you park at a shopping center and then leave the property on foot; you’re car stands a good chance of being towed.

      I work for another police department in the NOVA area and I hate the tow companies. Unfortunately there isn’t’ much that can be done until the laws are change.

      • John Strother

        well said Dave, except you miss a very important point, those that leave their vehicles with out permission have abandoned their vehicles. They were trespassing and left behind evidence that they were trespassing. It is a law not to trespass. You trespass you can be charged for that, you leave trash behind or a vehicle, the owner of the property has the right to remove it. No trespasser has the right to enter much less leave anything behind.

        • Dave

          John, people who park their cars and walk of the premises are not trespassing or abandoning their cars. For someone. To be trespassing they have to not be legally allowed on the property or already barred from the property. Parking your car and leaving to go watch a parade isn’t “abandoning” a vehicle either.

      • Jack Adkins

        Don’t say the businesses have no part in the towing. They either want it to happen or they don’t. If they feel the towing will be bad for business they will force the owner. Really what does the owner care otherwise. The patrons of the stores are not buying a product from the owner.

        • Dave

          I disagree. Those business are not going to go under. The Starbucks is so popular it makes parking there hard and that is the point of the whole exercise. That parking lot if for the buisnesses; people who park there to go to the park, library, or anywhere else should expect to get towed. What kind of customer service would it be if someone wanted to go to any of the businesses, but couldn’t find parking because everyone parked there was at the Memorial Day parade, Civil War days, etc….

          • JFallsChurch

            good point…but for the Memorial day parade how much would business suffer if we eased the parking restrictions during the parade time…wouldn’t there be enough foot traffic to offset the parking issue…I am not sure.

          • Dave

            That is a good question. I don’t know how to strike a balance between the two.

          • nsfbr

            I still think the solution to the problem is awareness of alternative options. Frankly, getting cars further aware from the celebrations is an additional benefit in and of itself.
            You can’t ease the restrictions for the simple reason that those businesses remain open during the events. Allowing people to use the facilities would in effect shut them down because the lot would be instantly filled.
            No one wants people to get towed, but you have to respect the businesses’ rights and interests to operate. So, publicize the heck out of the available parking a couple of blocks away and encourage the city to work out as many deals like that as possible.

  • PatrickSpens

    “A chronic problem, City officials say there’s little they’ve been able to do to prevent the practice.” At first I thought this was a dangling modifier. Then I realized it wasn’t.

    • http://shirtfree.wordpress.com/ Shirtfree Chuck

      Excellent observation, Patrick. City officials live to create new or magnify existing problems.

  • nsfbr

    Wouldn’t the simplest solution be to post signs advising folks not to park there AND that there is nearby public parking available a few blocks away? I live twice as far away as that public parking (which still makes it a very short walk) and we walk to the parade/festivities every year, as well as as the farmer’s market most Saturdays. This doesn’t seem to require anything more than a sign, one which the Broaddale owners might be willing to post right next to the towing advisory. “…Free public parking is available on weekdays after, 6PM, weekends and holidays at these locations…”
    Boycotting a shopping center for towing people who are tresspassing is kind of bizarre as well as ineffective. It isn’t like Chipotle is doing the towing, so why would it makes sense to attempt to hurt them?

    • John Strother

      why should anyone have to inform anyone else what is available other than NOT to park there? It is common knowledge that there should be legal spaces else wheres. You sound like someone that has no idea what trespassing means. It is a lw the prohibits anyone from doing anything on anothers property without their consent. You trespass, you get caught, you pay to remedy it. Otherwise would you like to spend time in Jail for breaking the law?

      • nsfbr

        I sound like what? Really? Perhaps I should explain it in more detail to you so that I sound more like someone who is willing to help those who seem perpetually angry to find a better way.
        There is a problem – people park where they aren’t supposed to park. They do this because they assume, incorrectly, that the apparent lack of parking mitigates their decision to trespass in a somewhat undersized lot which serves quite a few local businesses that I frequent. They then get upset when they are towed. That, all of it, is the problem.
        The city actualy has quite a bit of publicly usable parking during weekends and after business hours, but I’d wager that a relatively small fraction of potential users of that parking know this. The city has worked, and is working, to obtain access to more than is already available.
        Hence my solution – just do more to inform the people who otherwise would make a bad judgment and get themselves towed. Moreover, such signage would encourage more people to come and use our downtown because they would become more aware over time that, yes, you can actually park in downtown Falls Church. You may think that providing information is some kind of nanny state intrusion, but I for one think that such a mindset is rather sad. Also please note that nowhere did I suggest that the towing was wrong. It is unfortunate but necessary.

        Have a great day John!

        • Dave

          Don’t worry, John just seems to be full of himself. He seems to have no grasp on how criminal or civil law work.

      • Jack Adkins

        There is no “No Trespassing” signage. What are you talking about????

  • gordontheisz

    I hate that they tow naïve parkers, but the management company has a responsibility to its tenants, that parking be available for their customers. They don’t have an obligation to people who want to go to the library or somewhere else, even if they are planning to come back. How is the tower supposed to know someone’s plans however innocent? I think what horrifies most of us is that the tow company is hiding there waiting for the violation, swoop in and are out in less than three minutes. I am sympathetic to the towed, but only to a point.
    Anyone who visits this center at lunchtime knows that parking is a premium already. I wish there was a way that the tower could put a notice on violators first and come back if they don’t leave, but it is not practical. The only solution is to put a sign at every space with the warning (and cover it with a “no parade parking’ sign on event days).

    • David

      Speaking of “not practical” — put a sign at every space?! Do you realize how much these signs cost, including installation? It’s a lot. Not to mention the eyesore of hundreds of signs. The City code requires something to the effect of two reflective signs at all lot entrances and exits. The code even specifies the exact size and wording for the signs, which is why all of the ones you see in FC are the same. Ignorance may be bliss, but it is no defense for a driver who parks on someone’s private property in violation of the property owner’s conspicuous rules.

  • David

    “Predatory towing” is, in most cases, just aggressive enforcement of a legal towing policy. I don’t buy that most people don’t know that they’re at risk of being towed — the signs are conspicuous and this matter has been written about in the local papers for a long time. At some of the big events, like the Farmers’ Market, the nearby shopping center puts out a huge sign warning that it is not public parking.

    If you don’t want to get towed, abide by the policy of the private lot in which you are parking. As for the woman who was arrested — good. She was acting like an immature moron. If a towing company tows *your* car and you think they’re in the wrong, contact the police.

    • Dave

      David, the police aren’t going to do a thing to help you if your car gets towed away. My problem with what I have seen throughout Northern Virginia is two companies being allowed to cars with expired safety stickers or license plates; cars that otherwise are permitted to be parked in the lot they were towed from. Tow companies should not be allowed to “enforce” sections of the vehicle code. I do not know if this happens in the apartment buildings in Falls Church, but it is happening else where.

      I do agree the lady was an idiot and deserved what she got and people should read the posted signs.

      • David

        Dave, the City code lays out specific guidelines for what tow companies can and can’t do within City limits. If the tow company is operating outside of the Code, the police will respond, as it is considered a vehicle theft or pay dispute.

        I’m not aware of tow companies enforcing the vehicle code in Falls Church. However, if a private lot has a policy of removing vehicles that, for example, have expired plates, I’m not sure that this runs afoul of any state laws or municipal code.

  • John Strother

    If you trespass you can be charged with that trespass. I would think it be far better to charge those with the true offence than it is to just tow the cars. Once you have trespassed, it isn’t wise to leave behind something to point a finger towards you, as per se a car. How rude and disrespectful towards the property owner, a trespasser that leaves abandon property behind. Yes the vehicle is abandoned after the owner or driver leaves it there without the land owners’s permission. That land owner has every right to have an abandoned vehicle removed. Plus they have the right to charge said owner or driver with trespass. They just have not gone that far yet. Keep crying over the fact you broke a law and they will do the charges. Face a judge, hire a lawyer and have a record of criminal offences added to your name. Is this what everyone wants, to be charged as a trespasser? I think it is. Then so be it. Charge the drivers with Trespassing when the arrive to claim their cars. That way the courts will have a say in the matters. Yes there will be a fine and maybe even jail time. This will end these strifes very quickly. Because it will no longer be a thing between the tow yards and those towed, but in the courts. Park on my lands and without my permission and I’ll have your vehicle towed, you would do the same to me if I park on your property. Plus when you come back to reclaim your car, I’ll have you charged with trespass, the same you would do to me. Trespassing is a crime and committed by those that care about the rules or laws.

    • David

      John, respectfully, while I agree with a lot of what you write, you don’t seem to have a handle on the legal definition of trespassing in Virginia. I’d recommend understanding that before writing about it so extensively.

      • Dave

        I agree with David. You seem to have no understanding of how criminal or civil law works. You should look at taking criminal justice and law classes.

    • Dave
    • Ronnie Trout

      The FCPD posts regarding abandoned vehicles:

      The ordinance for abandoned vehicles is written in a
      manner to address those vehicles that:

      #1 the vehicle poses a HAZARD and/or is illegally parked
      …that is the first measure that must be met in this violation;

      #2 the
      vehicle must be there for a period of 48 hours +….

  • jth

    We were enjoying the afternoon on Dogwood Tavern’s rooftop and were appalled by Pete’s towing. The Town and Country office was closed and Pete’s towed cars there anyway. The owners came back to their cars from the parade with their children and were devastated. This is despicable.

  • JFallsChurch

    is there a limit on how much towing companies can charge? If so, set by state, county or city?

  • http://shirtfree.wordpress.com/ Shirtfree Chuck

    Broaddale Center has a chronic parking problem. Even legitimate customers have difficulty parking. Allowing non-customers to park would only exacerbate the problem to the detriment of the merchants, even on holidays and special events. This does not relieve the center management from posting proper signage and taking precautions to avoid abuses. The city cannot be expected to intervene in a contractual arrangement between two private parties. However, FC City can be expected to take up the public interest by setting restrictions on outrageous tow fees and predatory practices. Doing so would require leadership and innovation, neither of which seems to be within the capability of FC City officials. It is much more comfortable for them to sit in their air-conditioned offices, taking their salaries and enjoying their days off and let the public be damned.

  • http://shirtfree.wordpress.com/ Shirtfree Chuck

    Broaddale Center has a chronic parking problem. Even legitimate business patrons find parking difficult at certain times of day. Allowing non-customers to park at will, even on holidays and special events, would work to the detriment of the businesses located in the center. This does not absolve the center management from posting adequate signage and prohibiting abusive practices by their towing contractor. FC City officials also have a duty to represent the public interest by enacting and enforcing fair practices, such as prohibiting excessive towing fees and perhaps requiring a grace period before towing can take place. These people have repeatedly shown themselves to be short on initiative and leadership, much preferring to sit in their air-conditioned offices, waiting to retire whlle drawing their taxpayer funded salaries, enjoying their days off, and letting the public be damned.

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