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Arlington County Board Approves Towing Changes, Despite Some Business Opposition

Towing dispute outside the Arlington DMV (file photo)Above the objection of the Arlington Chamber of Commerce and numerous local business owners, the Arlington County Board on Tuesday approved a series of changes to its towing ordinance, including a controversial provision requiring businesses to authorize individual tows.

The so-called “real time authorization” provision was approved with a delayed implementation date: July 1, 2017. That will give the County Manager time to “identify alternative strategies to mitigate aggressive towing practices and provide an interim report,” according to a county press release.

The provision, which was not recommended by the County Manager nor the county’s Trespass Towing Advisory Board, requires “real time authorization for all tows from commercial property conducted during business hours.” Currently, businesses can grant blanket pre-authorization to towing companies to tow any vehicle trespassing on their lots.

Other provisions approved unanimously by the County Board include:

  • “Require tow truck drivers to photograph the vehicle at all four corners, providing vehicle owners with important safeguards should their vehicle be damaged, and providing towers with protection against false damage claims.”
  • “Requiring that the receipt given to the vehicle owner include a disclosure that photos and/or video evidence taken before the tow are available upon request and the contact information for the County office that handles trespass towing complaints.”
  • “Requiring towing and recovery operators to properly secure all loads to meet all safety standards.”
  • “A new requirement for signage/markings on the interior of parking lots or facilities to provide additional, clear information to vehicle owners about the parking restrictions on the property. This requirement builds upon the existing requirement for signs at all vehicle entrances.”
  • “Extend the eligible area for the location of storage facilities from three miles to three and one-quarter miles. This could allow more eligible locations for storage facilities, giving property owners more contractors to choose from without burdening vehicle owners in retrieving their vehicles.”

“These amendments provide important protections to vehicle owners whose vehicles are taken without their consent,” County Board Vice Chair Jay Fisette said in a statement. “We believe these reasonable requirements support the rights of Arlington County property owners and their tenants to enforce restrictions on their property while providing common sense standards for how vehicles are removed.”

The Board also authorized two additional towing fees: $25 for towing a vehicle in the evening (7 p.m.-8 a.m.) and $25 for towing a vehicle on a weekend or holiday. The changes were required by state code. Together, the fees could increase the initial charge for a tow (not including storage fees) to as high as $185.

Another provision prohibits towing companies from towing public safety vehicles, except at the direction of police.

Arlington County Board on 9/27/16The Board spent more than two hours on the towing ordinance amendments, mostly focusing on the real time authorization provision — which was also referred to as a “second signature” requirement.

During the public comment period, a number of business owners spoke out against it.

“I’m opposed to the second signature for the fact that I already have a detailed contract with the towing company that I use,” said a business owner, identified as a Mr. Fernandez. “It takes away from my employees that have to go out and sign these tow tickets or email, or whatever it is, it just doesn’t make any sense and I’m opposed to it.”

John O’Neill, the owner of Advanced Towing — which is perhaps the biggest trespass tower in the county — also spoke out against the provision.

“We believe that the second signature will cause adverse safety and operational problems for us, property owners and business owners,” he said. “There’s a misconception the property owners or business owner lets us tow at will. That is false. Towing is a last resort most property owners have examined. It is not a first choice.”

Takis Karantonis, a Columbia Heights resident and the former director of the Columbia Pike Revitalization Organization, said that both residents and business owners he talked to agreed that overly aggressive towing was a “serious problem” in Arlington that was discouraging customers from shopping in certain areas.

“The bottom line is that everybody, literally everybody, both on the business side and on the customer side, recognizes that the predatory towing — not every towing — that happens on purpose is a problem,” he said.

County Board members sounded off on the real time authorization provision, with John Vihstadt taking the most skeptical tone.

“I am supportive of the remainder of the staff report,” he said. “I am also in agreement of Mr. Fisette apart from the second signature. Businesses have an incentive to keep accessible and adequate parking for the customers, and that is their lifeline. And in Arlington in many places, we don’t have enough of it.”

Jay Fisette was the primary champion of the real time authorizaiton requirement. He spoke at length about why he thought it was necessary, noting that he did not think the low number of formal complaints lodged against towing companies was representative of what he sees as widespread consumer frustration.

I see this no question as a consumer protection issue. What this real time authorization requires is somebody to recognize and sign off on using technology, if necessary, that this is a valid and reasonable tow. I’m not saying technically. You’ve heard probably 97% of them are technically a legitimate tow because of someone has stepped off the property and I’ve read plenty of emails to this office over time and plenty of complaints.

This item we have had plenty of people write about the reality of stepping off the curb and in 20 seconds, the car is gone. Who really is winning in that regard, there’s only one person. It’s not the business, because the space was going to be freed up in another minute of two. The person is only gone inside or next-door to the ATM to get money to eat in the Taco Bell. Nobody wins. This allows that property owner, that business, to justify that that person isn’t standing before them doing business. It won’t take long. It’s going to allow every one of the legitimate tows to still occur.

My hope is that 5% or 10% of those tows where in fact, it is one of our patrons or someone that has inadvertently stepped aside to a neighboring business will not get punished. Nobody is willing when the tow company works with a spotter or some other mechanism to see a technical violation, runs in and tows that car, oftentimes not even hooked up well.

In addition, the company seems to use intimidation tactics to discourage complains including screaming at me when I attempted to explain I only stood on the sidewalk. Parking complaints are taken by polite and reasonable county employees with whom it is possible to hold a normal conversation. For this reason, I urge you to not use the number of towing complaints made to police as a reasonable data point. Arlington’s current towing practices hurt residents and local businesses.

County Board Chair Libby said she wasn’t sure whether the second signature requirement would remedy the “ATM” issue.

“We have some major issues and problems and the second signature won’t get at it, we can think we are done, but all of these remain,” Garvey said. “It’s so complex and I think we need to majorly work on them. What’s the point of driving 100 feet from one business to another when they’re next door? We don’t want that happening… a lot of work has to be done in the business community.”

Other County Baord members agreed.

“What we are trying to do here is to get at this issue of what to do when the punishment far exceeds the crime,” said Christian Dorsey.

“I am regretful that the business owners are not hearing from the customers the way that we’re hearing from customers as residents of the county,” said Katie Cristol. “If they did there would not be a need for government action.”

Additional reporting by Samantha Moore

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