‘Predatory’ Towing Near Parade Bums Many on Memorial Day

(Courtesy photo)
(Courtesy photo)

An otherwise flawless, warm and clear annual Memorial Day parade and festival in downtown Falls Church Monday was once again this year marred by 23 tows of vehicles from private lots adjacent the site, Falls Church City Police have reported.

In most cases, these are what are called “predatory tows,” cases where the vehicle owner was unaware of the risk of a tow despite mandatory signage at the sites. Using a spotter, the towing company responds swiftly whenever someone parks and steps off the site, even for just a few minutes. A chronic problem, City officials say there’s little they’ve been able to do to prevent the practice.

This Monday, 16 tows occurred at the Broaddale Shopping Center in the 300 block of W. Broad St. The Rockville-based owner of the strip mall, Nellis Properties, has repeatedly insisted on its right to contract Pete’s Towing of Falls Church for such efforts, according to Becky Witsman of the City’s Economic Development office.

Witsman said that efforts at securing a special moratorium on the City’s biggest annual event on Memorial Day have likewise been unsuccessful.

There is signage at the site, but clearly many don’t notice it. The sign at the Virginia Avenue entrance to the center is not directly at the entrance, but recessed inside the site.

The businesses in the strip mall are divided about the virtues of the towing policy, Witsman said. Some think it’s important to keep parking spaces open for customers. Others feel it has a longer-term effect of driving away business.

One issue, according to Witsman, is the fact that the property owner does not have to charge for the service, but simply to authorize its use.

In a new development this year, a Falls Church citizen was arrested and charged with disorderly conduct by Falls Church Police when, on Monday afternoon, she tried to dissuade the towers from removing cars from the Broaddale Center.

Rita Semenov told the News-Press she was walking home following the Memorial Day service in front of the community center filled with emotion from the event. She said she tried to block a towing she saw was underway by sitting in a car that had been prepped for the tow, in one case, and sitting on the hood of a car, in another.

She said in the course of an hour she was there, she saw five cars towed, one every 12 minutes, all by a single tow truck occurring unbeknownst to the car owners.

When police were called to remove her from obstructing what was going on, she was told she had five minutes to step aside, or be arrested. When she was arrested it was for a Class 1 misdemeanor with a maximum penalty of one year in prison. She was also banned from the property.

In March 2010, the F.C. City Council approved a new towing ordinance that required towing companies to photograph a vehicle in alleged violation and to notify police of each impending tow. A plan to require two authorizing signatures was dropped when it was learned the towing company would have them pre-signed and readily available, Witsman said.

Also in 2010, U.S. Rep. Jim Moran led an effort to achieve tougher anti-predatory towing legislation in the U.S. Congress and among allies in the Richmond legislature. Those led to minimal improvements, mostly limited to signage requirements and redoubled efforts at negotiated restrictions.