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The Daily Tar Heel

Raise your hand if you have been personally victimized by towing in Chapel Hill

Cars parked in the Wallace Parking Deck on E. Rosemary St. 

Cars parked in the Wallace Parking Deck on E. Rosemary St. 

Many Chapel Hill residents and UNC students alike have a nightmare towing story. For junior Madison Rideout, forgetting to move her car during a football game last fall resulted in confusion, hours on the phone with UNC Transportation and Parking and a $100 fee. 

After a public hearing on the issue in 2012, the Chapel Hill Town Council worked to address what many residents called “predatory” towing practices by passing a series of town ordinances. These ordinances included several provisions designed to regulate the ability of towing companies to tow vehicles from private lots and required specific signage at various intervals across the lot to indicate the area was a tow-away zone. 

The ordinances also placed a cap on the towing and storage fees that companies could charge for involuntarily towed vehicles and required towing companies to accept cash, debit cards and at least two major credit cards without the costs of extra transaction fees for towed individuals.

Former Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt said addressing the expensive, cash-only fees of many towing companies in Chapel Hill was a major goal of the town council’s ordinances.

“It’s the 21st century, who has $120 in cash? Or $200 in cash?” Kleinschmidt said. 

The ordinances also addressed cellphone use among Chapel Hill drivers. 

Current North Carolina law prohibits drivers under the age of 18 from using their cellphone while on the road, but the town ordinance put in place in 2012 prevented older drivers from using a cellphone while driving. Noncompliant drivers could be issued a fee of up to $25 but would not receive points on their license. 

Another provision of the town ordinance required towing companies to notify police within 15 minutes of completing a tow which presented a problem for many members of the town’s towing industry due to the cellphone provision of the ordinances.

George King, proprietor of George’s Towing and Recovery in Chapel Hill, challenged the town ordinances in court, claiming that the cellphone provisions prevented him from effectively doing his job. 

After several years of appeals and reviews, the North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in favor of King and struck down many of the provisions of the ordinances in 2014, including the ban on cellphone use while driving. 

King v. Town of Chapel Hill became a landmark decision in determining the power and scope of municipal governments across the state, but the ramifications of the towing rulings had the greatest impact on residents of Chapel Hill.

In the decision, the court struck down the limitations on towing and storage fees and eliminated the extra fees for paying with a credit card. Signage requirements, however, that call for signs to be clearly legible and placed in visible areas are still in place along with requirement that tow lots may not be located more than 15 miles outside of town. 

Chapel Hill Town Council Member Nancy Oates said the town cannot prevent business owners from implementing “walk-off” tow policies, where a patron is subject to being towed if they walk off the property on which they parked their vehicle. However, the town requires property owners to implement proper signage that notifies patrons of the policy. 

“We made sure that the language on the signs was clear, that it was at eye level or car level, so that when you pull into a parking spot you will be able to see it,” Oates said.

The current town policy requires signs to indicate that the lot is a tow-away zone in at least “one-and one-half (1 ½) inch high letters on a contrasting background.” The ordinances also require the signs to indicate the name and phone number of the towing company that tows the lot and that phone calls to the towing company must be answered by an employee within 15 minutes. 

If a resident feels they have been unfairly towed, they can contact the Chapel Hill Police Department.

Even if the police department rules a towing in violation of the town’s towing ordinances, the person who was towed must still pay the towing fee and the towing company runs the risks of receiving a fine from the town. 

In an effort to make parking easier downtown, Oates said the town will be implementing new parking kiosks in the coming months to make them more user friendly.

“Our goal is to make it easier to park in the town lots,” Oates said. 


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