Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

As parking grows scarcer in Arlington, normally angelic citizens get tempted to be scofflaws. The price, however, can be more than just a ticket—try a major hassle with a towing company that some call predatory.

Leave it to Arlington to try to make this mess a bit more civilized.

Hundreds of visitors to the Department of Motor Vehicles have been ensnared over the years when they parked, either in ignorance or desperation, off Four Mile Run behind a private market. Big boo-boo. Within seconds you get pounced on by the truck from Advanced Towing.

My own mea culpa came when my wife and I were late to dinner at a Thai restaurant on packed Columbia Pike. The only spot we could find belonged to the fine residents of Fillmore Gardens, whose sign we ignored. Until we came back to an empty space and assumed narcissistically we were victims of car theft.

Most recently, my friend Art’s daughter was on yoghurt run in Clarendon when she fed a meter that expired at 11 p.m. She returned at 11:02 to join other drivers discovering their cars gone. “What the signs do not tell you is that the meters are not those of Arlington County and therefore no tickets are written but that you are subject to towing by a private company at any time of day or night,” says Art.

If this befalls you, you will likely make a panicky call to the police and rush — by taxi or Metro—to the fenced-in Advanced Towing in Ballston behind Mercedes Benz of Arlington. It’s a lonely place, especially late at night. The women inside the trailer “are rude and have rehearsed their lines—‘It only takes 30 seconds to set up a tow,’ ” Art says. As he paid his daughter’s $125, another tow truck arrived and blocked the egress, almost sparking fisticuffs.

My calls to Advanced Towing went unreturned.

To apply reason to the issue, I consulted Brian Stout, the county’s federal liaison, who assured me the county and police are sensitive to consumer complaints. “Folks who have vehicles towed are pretty hot when they get over there,” he said. “The goal is to hold them accountable but to provide information so the towing is done legally and properly.”

A 2007 ordinance, since updated and reviewed annually, regulates towing from private property. It requires minimum-sized signs, caps fees at $125, and mandates safe storage and a “drop” fee of $25 if the car owner returns while towing is underway. The tower must keep records and report to police. Car owners may inspect their vehicles for damage.

The county works with property owners to go beyond the requirements, such as posting a complaint procedure. “It speaks to the issue’s importance,” Stout says, “that it’s handled from the county manager’s office.”

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Remember the Bayou? That nightclub under the Whitehurst Freeway long owned by Arlington’s Tramonte family is the subject of new documentary. Last week I was treated to preview of “Bayou: D.C’s Killer Joint.” It traces the club’s evolution from a jazz and burlesque venue in the 1950s to a ‘60s- through ’90s rock mecca that drew such names as U2, Foreigner, the Ramones and Dire Straits. Catch the film’s rich local history soundtrack Monday Feb. 25, 9 p.m. on Maryland Public Television.