The hot-button issue of so-called “predatory towing” consumed a lengthy period of the Falls Church City Council’s work session Monday as the first reading of a tough new ordinance aimed at deterring the practice is slated for a Council vote this Monday night.
At issue is the practice sanctioned by commercial property owners, especially of shopping centers, of towing companies to swiftly remove vehicles parked in a lot the moment the vehicle owner steps off the property, such as to an adjacent shopping center or to the public library.
Towing at the Broaddale Shopping Center in the 300 block of West Broad was especially troublesome at the Memorial Day Parade in May, while the number of “non-consensual” tows at the Federal Realty-owned West End shopping centers has spiked from an average of nine per year to a whopping 192 in the last year, and towing of vehicles owned by patrons of the State Theatre in lots where retail businesses have closed for the night has begun to escalate.
A consensus among Council members, all expressing dismay over the practice saying it hurts business in the City, including that of tenants in the shopping centers, leaned toward mandating a waiting period between a violation and a tow.
Council member Lawrence Webb, noting that the Eden Center shopping center in the City posts signs of a three-hour time limit for parking, suggested that a range of different time limits could work to deter those who park in shopping centers to, for example, jump on the Metro to work or to a special event in D.C.
He noted there is a big difference between someone who inadvertently steps off one shopping center parking lot to shop nearby for a short period, compared to the commuter who is looking to park free for the entire day.
While the Council may give a preliminary approval to an ordinance that would require things like a verbal or written approval from a property owner or representative prior to each tow, Mayor Gardner suggested it may take longer to consider the issue of time limits, and how to incorporate such a policy into the ordinance, before a final approval later in October.
F.C. Mayor Robin Gardner departed from the norm of work sessions by permitting testimony from representatives of both sides of the contentious issue as the meeting room was jammed with interested parties.
Brian M. Gordon of the Apartment and Office Building Association of Metropolitan Washington and Wendy Vunak of Federal Realty spoke in defense of the need for aggressive towing policies.
Vunak, in particular, defended the spike in tows, from an average of seven to 192, at the West End shopping centers, saying they correlated to big events in D.C. and thereby the use of the lots by Metro commuters.
However, Vice Mayor Hal Lippman was skeptical, saying “something smells” because major events have been going on for years in D.C. “These are outrageous figures. They don’t make any sense at all,” he said.
Councilman Nader Baroukh, echoing the need for changing the towing practice, said that the issue is really between the property owners and their tenants, since the tenants suffer from the ill will and lost business created from towing. “This practice makes for very unhappy customers,” he said.
Mayor Gardner said, “I have an inherent problem in how they (the towing companies) currently act. I don’t understand how a customer getting towed will be a repeat customer bringing business to the tenants. There is a real disconnect here.”
City officials have often commented about their frustration in contacting or getting responses from some commercial shopping center owners to discuss the policy. Gardner noted the presence of the two representatives this Monday inspired by an imminent vote to restrict the policy.
Rick Shaw, a local business owner, was allowed by Gardner to speak up against the current predatory towing practice, and he was impassioned, insisting that “most tows in Falls Church are not legal.” He was particularly incensed that his 85 year old grandmother, parking legally in a handicapped space, had her car towed within seven minutes. He said that while City Hall deemed his complaint “unsubstantiated,” he said there hasn’t been a towing company fined for violating towing rules since 2005.