Local Commentary

Our Man in Arlington

clark-fcnpThere’s a county movement afoot for new protections against predatory towing.

Though returning to your “parking place” and finding your vehicle vanished is a bugaboo of Arlington life, many businesses, cops and the main towing company have their own feelings on fairness in the towing wars.

It’s a national issue. Last December, Congress’s highway bill included the State and Local Predatory Towing Enforcement Act to allow more regulation of “nonconsensual tows.”

Business that seek to preserve limited parking only for their customers get accused of providing unclear signage. The towing company gets flak for employing “spotters” who spy on violators who park and sneak off to a neighboring destination, prompting an alert that brings an instant tow truck.

For months, an Arlington’s Trespass Towing Advisory Board has been working with the county manager on code recommendations to “balance” all interests. Despite some early discussion, its final draft did not include a ban on spotters, I was told by Brian Stout, county legislative liaison.

Lots of complicated issues will be ironed out in December. Tow trucks can collect an extra $25 if they nail you at night, weekends or holidays—which is a state requirement, not Arlington’s. Tow companies must annually report information on car storage, driver permits and proof of insurance. Government emergency vehicles get waivers.

The improvements require clearer signs, and they expand the maximum distance of car storage facilities to invite towing industry competition. Truck drivers are required to document the reason for towing and are liable for any damages. The county board overrode the advisory board and continued the requirement that towers photograph the impounded car, giving victims a chance to examine the photos.

Current law requires notification of police through the Emergency Communications Center before the tow truck hauls a car, to help police counsel car owners who assume car theft. The required timing may be adjusted–a possible 10-minute deadline.

Most contentious was a proposal that towing operators go beyond their standing contract and sign off on each specific car before a tow. This “second signing,” proposed under new laws by board vice chair Jay Fisette, would apply only to nonresidential properties during business hours.

That plan angered Arlington’s hoteliers, apartment landlords and Chamber of Commerce. The chamber wrote in a letter complaining that it “would present significant administrative and cost burdens to implement and would deteriorate the level of service provided by towing contractors to local businesses who must keep parking areas clear and available to their employees, visitors and customers to remain financially viable.”

John O’Neill, owner of Advanced Towing, which does about 90 percent of Arlington’s work, also opposes the second signing. It would subject businesses to “onerous physical/financial burdens and personal safety risks,” he said by email. “When property and business owners have already authorized towing by prior contractual written agreement, it is unnecessarily redundant and onerous on all parties to require authorization again.”

Not surprisingly, O’Neill hates the phrase “predatory towing.” If, say, a convenience store continually attracts illegal parkers to neighboring lots, he asks, “Should property or business owners continuously be subjected to and financially impacted by short-term illegal parking be able to control it by towing?”

Part of the county’s wish list for the 2017 General Assembly is expanded membership for the general public on the Trespass Towing Advisory Board.

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Arlington is not Trump country. Final results of last week’s election earthquake showed him taking 16.62 percent of the vote, versus Hillary Clinton’s 75.78. With turnout more than 70 percent, she won all 53 precincts. Trump did best in Madison, Marshall, Virginia Highland and Hume precincts.

Libertarian Gary Johnson drew 3,816 votes, Green Party Candidate Jill Stein 908.

Interestingly, during the last ballot box earthquake, in 1980, insurgent Ronald Reagan beat incumbent Jimmy Carter in Arlington, 28,912 to 25,003. That Republican carried 26 of Arlington’s then-39 precincts.