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County to enforce zoning violations in Ballston public alley used by Advanced Towing

Advanced Towing tow truck outside the company’s lot in Ballston (staff photo by Jay Westcott)

(Updated at 8:45 a.m. on 7/4/23) Arlington County says it is enforcing some wayward fencing and gates in a public alley abutting Advanced Towing and American Service Center.

It all started because of complaints about tow trucks for the Ballston company parking in front of “the most famous fire hydrant in Arlington County,” so named by public safety watchdog Dave Statter.

Over the last year, an anonymous Twitter account dedicated to the hydrant has made Freedom of Information Act requests to ascertain the alley’s ownership and highlight the county’s responsibility for overseeing how it is used. This inquiry sparked several complaints about illegal parking last fall.

This week, the information requests unearthed an update: the county said it owns the 5th Road N. alley, off N. Quincy Street in Ballston. It said it is working with Advanced Towing to remove a fence and American Service Center, which operates the Mercedes-Benz dealership, to remove the gates.

The owner of the “Advanced Towing Fire Hydrant” Twitter account, says highlighting the zoning code issues was not because of an ax to grind with the towing company. Instead, it was to highlight the degree to which enforcement decisions lie with the Office of the County Manager.

“You shouldn’t have to crowdsource outrage on Twitter to get the government to enforce existing parking regulations,” the account owner, who wants to remain anonymous, told ARLnow.

In a statement, county spokesman Ryan Hudson confirmed the enforcement would begin and traced the move back to citizen complaints.

“Zoning started enforcement due to the fact that these two businesses are encroaching on public land,” he says. “The genesis was a complaint about illegally parked cars in front of the fire hydrant. That led us to become aware the fence didn’t meet the clearance of 3 feet and didn’t have Zoning approval.”

The fire hydrant account posted about the wayward fence earlier this year.

A spokesperson for Advanced Towing confirmed the company is complying with the request.

“We have been in touch with the County and our fence will be open tomorrow,” an Advanced Towing spokesperson said in an email, adding that the company never put the fence up and it has been there for well over 20 years.

Arlington County approved a certificate of occupancy for the tow company but that did not amount to permission to occupy the alley, according to a copy provided to the Advanced Towing Fire Hydrant Twitter account.

While the company can occupy the alley, Hudson says the fence has to be moved back because it is encroaching into a 10-foot wide public alley. Fences on private property are allowed with proper approval — just not in a public alleyway.

“The County, not adjacent property owners or tenants, will determine how to operate and maintain the public alley,” the county spokesman said.

The alley adjacent to the American Service Center property, meanwhile, is a public alley not owned by the auto repair company.

“Gates need to remain open because they are obstructing public use of and access to the public alley,” Hudson said.

A spokeswoman for American Service Center told ARLnow she was directed “not to discuss anything with anyone.”

The fence around Advanced Towing appears to have changed in scope about a decade ago, according to Google Maps satellite imagery.

Advanced Towing says it did not make these changes, noting that, “although it seems easier and faster, Google isn’t always the answer for a ‘story.'”

“That wasn’t us,” the spokesperson said. “We have NEVER TAKEN DOWN OR PUT UP A FENCE.”

The towing company spokesman said ARLnow could “probably easily find out who it was.”

When asked if the company had information about previous owners who may have made changes during Advanced Towing’s tenure, the spokesperson said “that’s your job to find out. Not mine to give you.”

Property records for the lot Advanced Towing occupies at 4000 5th Road N. indicate the property has changed hands a few times over the years. Until a Courthouse-based real estate company bought the property in 2015, the owners used alias company names and listed home addresses in Virginia and Florida.

A call to the current owner, to see if the company could shed light on the fence’s history, was not returned before deadline.

“We’ll be looking out for this Pulitzer Prize story,” the Advanced Towing spokesman said.

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