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Towing dispute leads to fee cap

By Jackie R. Broach
Coastal Observer

Daniel Rogers of Atlanta was appalled when a number of his friends were towed from a business in Pawleys Island and assessed fees totaling $290 each.

His anger prompted him to send an e-mail to county officials, alerting them about the problem. That e-mail is at the heart of a new ordinance under consideration by County Council that would set limits for how much tow truck operators can charge for “non-consent towing.”

Rogers and his friends were at the Pawleys Island Tavern for a wedding party at the end of May when the towing occurred, he said. The tavern was full that night, so they parked next door in the paved lot for the Island Shops.

“We saw plain as day all the signs that say unauthorized people will be towed,” Rogers admitted in a phone interview last week. “But we thought we were authorized. As far as we knew, it was all part of the same complex.”

So Rogers was surprised when his friends’ cars were towed. He wouldn’t have said anything, however, had the fees been reasonable. The charge for towing was $250 per car plus a $40 storage fee.

“The tow truck operator said to one of our group getting towed that he had removed 47 cars that night (and the night wasn’t over at that point),” Rogers wrote in his letter to Sel Hemingway, the county administrator. “If you do the math, that amounts to over $14,000 extorted from a group of people that weren’t really hurting anyone by parking there. You could buy a boat or put a down payment on a condo for that kind of money.”

Under the new ordinance, fees for vehicles weighing less than 10,000 pounds would be limited to $75 for towing and $10 per day for storage.

A Hummer H2 weighs about 8,600 pounds.

The ordinance was deferred at second reading Tuesday to give the county attorney, Wesley Bryant, time to meet with towing companies and discuss the proposed ordinance and rate schedule.

The ordinance will be back on the agenda in September.

Bryant said Rogers’ wasn’t the first complaint the county received about “exorbitant prices” for non-consent towing.

“We’ve had a few of these incidents and what it boiled down to is we feel like we need something to prohibit predatory towing practices,” he said.

“We know it’s not all the companies that do it, but we need to protect citizens from the ones that are.”

The fee cap would apply to vehicles towed from private property at the property owner’s request, as well as vehicles the sheriff’s office has towed from a right of way.

In addition to a rate schedule, it expands on a state law that requires warning signs be posted if towing is to be enforced. It mandates the size of signs, where they should be located and what information they must contain.

“We’ve been kind of mulling over this whole thing for the last six to eight months, since some of the first reports came in,” Bryant said, “but really, this latest e-mail was kind of the last drop in the bucket before it made it tip over. This is not something we’re doing on a whim. It’s been ongoing.”

Council Member Glen O’Connell asked the county to look into a towing ordinance after he received a complaint from a tenant at an office he owns on Da Gullah Way.

The tenant left a truck at the complex over the weekend and someone had it towed because they didn’t recognize it.

“That’s what initiated my discussion with Sel about getting something done,” O’Connell said.

But his concern at that point had less to do with regulating fees than with regulating who can have cars towed and why.

“The thing that seemed so outrageous was that it seemed anybody could walk down the street and say ‘I don’t like green cars,’ and have them all towed,” O’Connell said.

“I wouldn’t want to suggest to a property owner that they have to tolerate people parking here and there and everywhere. Certainly, they have rights and can take some appropriate action, but the person towed away should have some expectation that it isn’t done just on a whim.”

The ordinance addresses that through signage and regulating who can have a car towed.

There was no sign at O’Connell’s complex stating vehicles left there would be towed. “And a person could argue, in my opinion, that the person towed had property rights there by virtue of being a tenant at the property,” he said.

While complaints about towing have not been epidemic, “it is clear the process was not adequately defined and was an open door for abuse,” O’Connell said. “The fact that there were not people lined up to abuse it, didn’t mean it didn’t need to be fixed somewhat.”

Bryant said all the complaints he is aware of have involved one company. In his e-mail, Rogers identified the company that towed his friends as CCT Recovery.

The owner, Chawn Stewart, declined to comment, but asked council during a public hearing this week not to pass the ordinance.

Stewart said he called other towing companies and found “everyone charges about the same rate.” They’re all within a $25 to $30 difference, he said.

Another tow operator in the audience told council he charges about $125 for non-consent towing.

Stewart said he would consider pricing exorbitant if it were thousands of dollars, but that’s not the case.

“We’ve got enough ordinances,” he said. “I’m asking you to refrain from adding more ordinances for things we really don’t need.”

The proposed ordinance is modeled after one in Greenville County. That ordinance caused controversy when it was passed, angering tow truck company owners.

Bryant said there were no complaints about Georgetown County’s pending ordinance prior to Stewart’s, though the county ran a public notice.

Council members and county staff said they are willing to rethink the proposed rates and aren’t looking to hurt towing companies.

Rogers said he is glad his complaint resulted in action that could benefit tourists and residents, and is hopeful the ordinance will pass.

“I don’t want to see this happen to other folks,” he said.

Rogers said he believes employees at the tavern should have “very aggressively” warned members of the party and other patrons about parking on the neighboring property and that the signs at the Island Shops were not clear enough.

“The signage is very misleading and turned out to create a very expensive and negative experience for a group of decent folks in town to have a good time,” he said.

The owner of the Island Shops was not available for comment.

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