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Amid dueling points of view, North Myrtle Beach passes overhauled towing law

North Myrtle Beach's new towing law mandates property owners and police be present for tows.

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Towing Law picture

North Myrtle Beach's city council on Monday passed final reading of an ordinance overhauling the city's towing laws. Photo by Christian Boschult 

North Myrtle Beach council on Monday passed final reading of an ordinance that forces property owners or any of their agents of record to be on scene when a tow company pulls a car parked illegally on their property, and prevents any tows from happening without police showing up first. 

The new rules go into effect on Nov. 1, 2020.

"It’s disconcerting we keep getting calls and emails of nonconsensual tows, and people are getting upset just because a couple of the five companies don’t want to follow the ordinance," said councilor Nikki Fontana. "If there’s five companies, and three of them can follow this ordinance, then I don’t understand why the other two can’t."

But the ordinance did not cruise past final reading without opposition by several property owners, a tow company owner and reservations by some city councilors about the burden it would place on residents of smaller condo buildings. 

"I’ve been to all three meetings so far," said Sea Marsh 1 HOA President Marijane Ambrogi. "At all three meetings, there’s been not one constituent who’s stood up here and said they’d like this. Who are you actually representing if you’re not representing us? No one here in the past three meetings has said this is a good idea for the homeowners and for the condo owners."

The ordinance is an effort to crack down on predatory towing by getting the police involved in the process. It also clears up the language about the responsibilities of property owners during non-consensual tows, which occur when a wrecker tows a car that’s parked illegally on private property. It standardizes the prices towing companies can charge to prevent people from getting hit with hidden fees, and forces tow companies to accept both cash, credit and debit cards as a form of payment at their offices.

Greenville, South Carolina Municipal Judge Mike O'Brien, who owns a house in Cherry Grove, told council that he was a victim of predatory towing on May 6, and recounted an episode where his van with two carseats was towed, even though he was parked in the lot of a closed restaurant without proper signage and no owner present to sign off on the tow.

He had to leave his family and two grandkids outside in the rain while he got $185 in cash and tracked down his van, he said.

"In a nutshell, this is bad business for North Myrtle Beach when they tow your car," O'Brien said. "Can you imagine if I didn’t want to come back here because of the fact that my car got towed and I had this terrible impression about North Myrtle Beach? With COVID shutting all your businesses down, I would have spent that $185 somewhere else. But instead I had to deal with the towing company." 

The ordinance on the books already requires towing companies to send police an authorization form with vehicle information and the “original signature” of any property owner or their designee where the non-consensual tow occurred. While the city and some tow companies interpret that language to require the presence of the property owner or their designee, Coastline Towing (which does most non-consensual tows in the city) and the properties it covers have taken a different approach, often using photocopies of pre-signed forms and filling in the info as they go. 

"I know it’s part of the ordinance since 2011, but it’s long been ignored," said Pam Stanley, the HOA manager for Pierwatch Villas in Cherry Grove. "That’s because homeowners are not here to make that call. Our concern is the person that pays $6,000 for an ocean-front, six-bedroom condo showing up at ten o’clock at night with no place to park." 

Stanley said a lot of owners rent out their properties and aren't always around to call police during the summer months.

"They will have to hire a parking monitoring service, a service that the towing companies can provide for free," she said, adding that property owners don't want to get involved in the towing process.

But the city says it doesn’t have a record of all the required tow authorization forms it should have. Towing companies call in each tow they make, and are supposed to follow up with an authorization form containing information about the vehicle, where it was parked and why it was towed.

The city has accused Coastline of not sending in all the required forms, while Coastline has blamed the issue on problems with the city’s fax machine. The city has countered by pointing out that other towing companies haven’t had that problem. Public Safety Director Jay Fernandez said during a workshop last week that the city was missing more than 100 of the required forms. 

The new rules require the property owner or any of their designated agents of record to provide an “original wet ink” signature, rending the photocopy technique useless, and forcing them to be on the property when the tow occurs, even though the city believed the old ordinance already required that. The new rules also make the property owner or agent of record call police before a tow happens, to make sure the tow is legitimate. The city says the police have a three-to-five-minute response time, but residents have questioned how fast police will be able to respond. 

"There’s not a whole lot that’s changed from what the original ordinance was," said Mayor Marilyn Hatley. "It was just that we weren’t following what the original ordinance was. But if we see this is not going to work, we can always revisit."

In previous discussions, city councilors have asked if the towing companies themselves can call police instead of potentially burdening smaller properties with more employees to fill in for absent owners. But without a property owner or agent of record on-site to ensure a tow is legitimate, the city doesn’t want to get into the business of deciding when a tow is legal. 

Councilor Bob Cavanaugh, who voted for the ordinance, warned that the city should listen to the concerns of property owners in smaller developments.

"While I’m going to support it tonight, I want to get across and make sure that we start collecting information about ways in which we might have to improve it for our small property owners," Cavanaugh said. 

Councilor Hank Thomas, who did not vote against the ordinance, also expressed concern, saying the problems between vehicle owners, property owners and towing companies should be a civil issue. 

"It seems like we’re getting into a lot of – some – issues that as a city government, that we don’t really need get into," Thomas said. 

Fernandez offered up another reason why he wanted the police involved in the process of towing illegally-parked cars, beyond stopping predatory tows.

"That car may be involved in a crime, it could have been stolen somewhere else and dumped there, or it may be a crime scene itself," he said. "In any of those situations, we need to make sure we secure it as quick as possibly can."

James Gause, who owns Gause's Towing and Recovery, praised city council for passing the ordinance. 

"It’s going to get rid of all the predatory towing; it’s going to set a standard," he said. "I applaud the city council for taking initiative to make a change. It’s going to inconvenience a few people, but the ones that are crying wolf always cry the loudest."

Coastline Towing owner Richard Pate, who has bore the brunt of the city's criticism, said he won't know how the new rules will affect him until tourists return next summer, and worried about the impact on residents.

"The biggest fear is the city’s not going to be there in time," Pate said. "Second-biggest fear is they’re putting a big burden on the property owners. They’re going to have to hire security, they’re going to have to hire somebody there to watch their property. It’s really a civil matter. It’s not a city matter, it’s a civil matter."

Click here for the full ordinance

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(2) comments

LastEagleScout

911: Sorry, we cannot respond to your emergency because we have to go have a car towed that's illegally parked and there is a short-term rental who has a trashcan overflowing.

LastEagleScout

This is so typical of NMB. Seeking out trees vs. addressing the forest! Start with the question, why are people parking illegally? Because, there aren't enough parking spaces. Why aren't there enough parking spaces? Because, NMB did not plan for beach parking when they made plans to attract more tourists and allow short-term rentals all over the city. Why did they not plan for beach parking? Because, the mayor is a cosmetologist and the city council is owned by Thomas and Elliot Real Estate. Why is NMB owned by real estate companies? Because the mayor is a cosmetologist! Please vote in a professional with some degree of aptitude next year!!

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