Towing tales: Like hassles, everybody has one

It was supposed to be a fun night out on the Downtown Mall for a pair of mothers: dinner followed by a show, then home to their families. But on April 17, after shelling out nearly $80 for tickets to see Nanci Griffith at the Paramount, and dropping another $140 at Hamiltons' restaurant, not to mention paying $10 for four hours of pre-paid parking, the good times came to a screeching halt when the two women returned to the lot across Market Street from Lee Park just before 11pm to an unwelcome discovery. The minivan was gone.

"I thought it had been stolen," says Ginny Anderson, an oncology nurse who says she'd paid to park in the lot on many other occasions without incident. In fact, Anderson and her friend would soon figure out, their car had been taken– but not by a thief. It had been towed.

Getting it back wasn't only time consuming and expensive; Anderson says it was dangerous, as she and her friend called Collier's Towing Service and learned cash was their only after-hours payment option, forcing them to seek an ATM on foot to retrieve the $145 cash required. Then, as midnight approached, the women took a cab to the impound lot nearly a mile away on the dark and lightly traveled Fifth Street, behind Zinc restaurant on West Main.

"It is appalling to think that this practice of towing people who accidentally overextend their parking time would be acceptable to Keith Woodard (the owner of the lot) and to the businesses and the patrons of the Downtown Mall," Anderson writes in an email, explaining that the concert ran later than she and her friend had expected, and admitting their parking allotment may have expired about 45 minutes before their return.

Citing the murder of college student Morgan Harrington and recent armed robberies including an April 26 incident outside Burnley-Moran Elementary School on Long Street, Anderson contends that towing cars– even those breaking rules– and leaving their drivers stranded at night is "negligent, abusive, and extreme."

Gil Harrington agrees.

Her daughter, Morgan, disappeared in late 2009 after leaving the John Paul Jones Arena during a Metallica concert. The 20-year-old's decomposed remains were found three months later on an Albemarle County farm. With her daughter's killer still on the loose, Gil Harrington says the thought of leaving women stranded without vehicles chills her.

"It sets you up to be targeted by people with bad intentions," says Harrington. "Especially in that town where there's been a lot of crime against women, it doesn't seem like it's the best policy."

Many others have felt fear and frustration after getting stranded downtown. Since 2007, the Hook has reported on numerous other downtown visitors who had similar experiences at Woodard's lot including June and Paul Russell, who'd come downtown for lunch in August 2007 to celebrate June's 74th birthday. When the septuaganarians discovered their car had been towed, a passerby advised they could walk to Collier's off of West Main, but the nearly mile-long trek was overwhelming for the pair, who suffered from arthritis and heart problems.

It was stories like the Russells' that prompted top City Planner Jim Tolbert to express his outrage to Woodard in an email.

"I know you think the signage you have is enough, but there are too many intelligent people that this happens to," Tolbert told Woodard. "It is giving C'ville a bad rep, and I would hope you would be ashamed to be a part of it."

At the time, Woodard Properties responded by adding lights, increasing the signs, and placing a canopy over the pre-pay machine. The real estate developer declined at the time to speak to reporters.

Today, a spokesperson for Woodard Properties says there are plans to further improve signage and notes that the firm has instructed Collier's Towing Company to hold off on towing for an unspecified "grace period" after someone's paid parking expires.

"We prefer that no one get towed," says Woodard spokesperson Michael Morris, who portrays towing as an unfortunate necessity.

"If we didn't enforce it," Morris says, "we'd have people parking in there all the time without paying."

In spite of the signage changes, towing complaints are still rolling in, and an assistant city attorney says he's investigating the legalities of creating a new city towing ordinance, which by state law, would require the formation of an advisory board to make recommendations, which could include a price cap. In Richmond, for instance, the maximum fee is $95, and UVA caps towing from its grounds at $50.

In his agreement with Collier's, Woodard sets the maximum fee at $95– but tack on $25 for an "after-hours release fee," and another $25 for a "parking fee," the latter which Collier's hands over to Woodard, and you have the $145 total Anderson was cited. (Had the moms been driving an all-wheel-drive vehicle, the news would have been even worse, as Collier's owner Glenda Jones says she charges $25 if special equipment is needed. Such vehicles, she says, must be hoisted entirely off the ground to avoid damage.)

"City Council is going to be considering what to do over the next few weeks," says Assistant City Attorney Rich Harris.

While Anderson and others primarily cite safety considerations for those whose vehicles have been towed, others contend that towing cars from downtown lots simply sends visitors the wrong message.

"It's out of proportion to the offense," says Bob Stroh.

The boss of the Charlottesville Parking Center, Stroh operates three downtown parking facilities, a lot and a garage on Water Street and another garage on Market Street. While all three operations employ attendants to enforce payment (and thereby prevent many of the infractions that might lead to towing), Stroh insists his company goes to great lengths to avoid towing customers, even when they're parked illegally.

"We view our parking facility as the first place people see when they come downtown and the last place people see when they leave downtown," says Stroh. "We want to leave people with that good feeling no matter what their experience."

While Stroh asserts that people who deliberately violate posted parking rules should face consequences of some type, he recommends a warning for first-time offenders and notes that in his experience, most parking violations stem from simple human error– forgetting to put a ticket on a dash or failing, while out with friends, to check the clock.

That was the case last month when a man returned to the parking lot on Elliewood Avenue owned by Piedmont Parking to discover the wheels of his car already hoisted onto a truck. The man, David Grubbs, told NBC29 and the Newsplex that he'd accidentally put his parking ticket in his pocket rather than on the dash of his car. And although he arrived before his vehicle was removed, and with the parking ticket as proof of payment, the tow truck driver initially refused to release the vehicle unless Grubbs paid the full $125 towing fee.

While Grubbs could not be reached by presstime, across-the-street store owner Paul Collinge of Heartwood Books watched the exchange with dismay.

"The tow truck driver could see the receipt," Collinge told City Council during the public comments section of the April 16 meeting, noting that after Grubbs summoned a police officer, the tow truck driver agreed to release the car for $25.

In fact, according to Barbara Drudge, interim executive director of the Virginia Board of Towing and Recovery Operators, a state agency that oversees the industry, if a car has already been hitched to the truck, the driver has a right to full payment. If the car owner arrives before the vehicle has been hitched, however, the legal maximum to release the vehicle is $25.

As for the price of towing, state law caps it at $125 during the day, $150 on nights and weekends. In addition, lot owners may charge a "parking fee," which in Woodard's case is $25. While legal, it's a fee that seems predatory, says David Post, an attorney who was towed from Woodard's lot earlier this year. (See sidebar essay: "How $2.75 generates $145.")

What about towing companies demanding cash on the spot? While few people carry $150 and while credit or debit cards have become the new legal tender, Drudge says it's perfectly legal for after-hours transactions, especially since drivers may be the only ones on duty for the business and may not have access to credit card machines.

Reached by phone, Collinge says watching Corner customers cope with a towing upsets him, and it's not the only thing that angers him about that Elliewood lot, where a machine recently replaced a human attendant, leading, he believes, to confusion among parkers who were accustomed to the old system.

"There was almost no transition," he told City Council, calling the signs explaining the new system "completely inadequate."

Even more offensive to Collinge is the fact that the new machine accepts cash but won't give change. That means someone who puts in a $20 bill for an hour of parking is simply out of luck.

The owner of the lot, Piedmont Virginia Parking Company, which appears to be run by Robin Lee of R.E. Construction, did not return the Hook's repeated calls.

Collinge, however, says the old adage "the customer comes first" apparently doesn't apply at Piedmont.

"They periodically severely punish their own patrons," Collinge told Council, joking that if he refused to give a customer change at his store, "I would run out of customers very fast."

It's a sentiment echoed by the owner of a nearby parking lot, who says he can't understand towing cars whose owners have paid to be there and who are shopping at area stores– even if they run over their allotted time.

"I hate towing people," says Chris Farina, proprietor of the Corner Parking Lot. "These are the people who are keeping the stores in business."

Like the downtown parking garages run by Stroh, Farina employs attendants, who collect money as patrons exit– something that might minimize the need for towing.

But if the stories of towed patrons get many people's blood boiling, Woodard spokesperson Morris says at a certain point, drivers simply need to take responsibility.

"We don't feel we've set up an unfair system," says Morris, pointing out that downtown parking is in high demand, particularly in the evening. Indeed, the full-day fee for parking at Woodard's lot is $20.

"There's no place to park that's free," says Morris. "Anyone that comes in thinking that is being naive."


The tow companies are the vultures,vampires and mafia of Charlottesville. It is ridiculous.

Maybe Charlottesville should find a way to boycott Woodard. Hit him where he'll listen. This comments area would be a great place for non Woodard parking companies in the area to sound off so we know where our alternatives are.

Someone should do a little write-up about how Woodard refuses to allow West Main to use the lot he owns directly behind their building, even though it is used by day employees, vacant in the evenings, and West Main has offered to PAY for its use. If I know a lot is owned by Woodard I will go to great lengths to park elsewhere.

How does Gil Harrington manage to find her way into EVERY story? A lot of crimes against women? Compared to where exactly.. All boys schools?

RJ, if that's not the truth! Just how safe is it in Gil's hometown of Roanoke? Check out the crime rate there! Women are much safer in Charlottesville. I don't even need to bring up the part about how Morgan left JPJ on her own, while blitzed, and hitched a ride with a total stranger. I don't understand why Gil gets to keep blaming Charlottesville for her daughter's death. Does she think Charlottesville is hiding the killer on purpose? Does he even live here?

Num Nutz people think they are entitled to lifetime parking when they buy a car.
Dump your sled on someone else's property you get towed and I think it's really funny when people wail and gnash their teeth over this. They whine and cry that they have to go to an ATM for cash. As if the impound lots are going to take their check or credit card just to have a stop payment the next day. Be a dumass and park your car on private property, you get what you have coming...Bwahahaha..

As a professional sadist, I'd love to own a few downtown parking lots, a towing company, and an impound lot. Just so I could watch the videos of all the entitled doofuses rending their garments over the terrible injustice of it all. I would have the impound lot's office set up like a movie set with the langorous rude gum chewing skank in the office behind glass, the tatooed sullen huge guys and menacing dogs in the lobby. All this just to torment a certain class of C'ville resident. This would be happiness incarnate....

Every time I think Gil has taken one step forward -- for instance, a new Help Save the Next Girl psa that starts to hint (albeit gingerly, around the edges) at personal responsibility for one's safety -- she pops up as an angry carpetbagger slamming cville for its imagined wrongdoings. Not sure why she's not mad at Fairfax-- she doesn't go all blame game on them, and the same dude once struck there. I think Charlottesville has been very supportive of the Harringtons and empathetic to their loss. Gave them a nice plaque (yes, of course they'd rather have their daughter, but not every dead child in cville -- who's not even FROM cville -- gets memorialized in such a way), welcomes them in the holiday parades, keeps the case alive in the public eye thanks to the Hook. Yet she can't seem to let go of the grudge against the place. As Hook Reader 2 said above, the bad guy isn't even necessarily from cville. Easily could have been passing through, right place, right time to find an easy victim willing to climb into a car with a stranger.

About a month ago me and my husband decided to go out for the first time in about 5 years and we were having such a good time we were paying much attention to the signs in that parking lot and we didn't see a person attendent we aren't use to the machines so we honestly didn't know. Well we are walking down the side walk and my husband yell out hunny our car is being towed! So my friend takes me to go get my car and the tower did not tell me his name, didn't ask me for prof that it was my car which makes me wonder if someone goes up there and say that's my car even though it may not be would they hand it over once the fee is paid? Well they charged me $180 which I didn't have at the time on me and honestly couldn't afford well my friend lent it to me but i didn't have a key my husband had it so they had to go back and get him. Well I waited since I had already paid. When they got their the tow driver started talking crap to my husband as hes walking away well my husband not liking that says something back and then next thing I know they are face to face nose to nose yelling and cussing and talking about how they are going to fight. Well I understand why my husband went off and was angry about being towed and then I had to wait in a bad neighborhood and pay $180 which we didn't have and then they talk crap! Very unprofessional of the tow driver to then even try to fight my husband. Needless to say my friends split them apart and we left but i will never park down there again and it discourages me to go down on the corner again I'm always worried about being towed and going through that again. I'm a 25 yr old mother of two and a citizen of charlotteville and I just don't want to be stranded again or to be treated unkindly

Right. It isn't as if you wouldn't pay for the additional time parking. The problem is that you don't know up front how long that time is. Woodard and Colliers count on this for their racket. That's why most modern folk like those ticket based parking lots where you get a ticket when you enter and you pay for your time when you leave.

But that would be too honest and neighborly, wouldn't it?

What's with all the moaning?
Just stop patronizing businesses in downtown and see how fast things change. Near as I can tell the intent is to drive folks away. Don't be so rigid. Go where you're wanted. Richmond has lots of nice places to shop, eat and be entertained.

The issue isn't whether people are entitled because they feel like they can park their gas guzzler in whatever spot they feel for as long as they want - the real issue here is that Woodard is gouging his customers that have already paid to park in his lot. Imagine if the city started towing people that parked 20 minutes in a 15 minute spot. That would really bring people out with their pitchforks.

My point is, Woodard could install a system similar to the airport, where you take your parking stub in order to pass through a gate, park your car, and pay at an automated stand on your way out of the lot before you pass through an exit gate. But he probably ran the numbers and decided that type of system would lead him to forgo the additional revenue he'd get from towing his paying customers.

Vote with your feet, er wheels.

Here's a radical idea-- how about Woodard doing something beneficial for the local economy and hiring real life flesh & blood employees for that lot? Crazy, huh? No more ill will caused by knee-jerk towing, all parking fees will be paid before patrons exit the lot, and jobs will be created. That sounds like a win-win to me.

Remember when so-called businessmen employed human beings rather than buying inanimate hunks of machinery? One of the reasons I like parking in the Market St parking garage and Farina's corner parking lot is because of the parking attendants. You get to know them and they you. I have zero respect for Woodard, who is obviously taking extra advantage of the people parking in his lot, and is too cheap to pay employees.

Re Keith Woodward and his relationship to the communiuty:

This seems a good time to recall that in the fall of 2007, the City gave Keith Woodard $850,000 of taxpayer money in the form of an interest free loan (together with a buy-back agreement) to purchase all of Dogwood Housing's properties. Then the City promptly forgave that loan. So, of course, that $850,000 did not come back into City coffers last fall.

One would think such public largesse would engender at least a bit of public spirit -- or at very least free up a few bucks to pay an attendant.

When attending UVA, my kid rented an apartment managed by Woodard Properties. I won't go into details, but that is one sleazy bunch of scam artists. This parking lot business is thus no surprise since Woodard is involved.

Now from the picture, that lady might have benefited 2 ways by spending a little less at Hamiltons and applying the balance to an extra $2.50 for an additional hour of prepaid parking. Just saying you know...

"There's no place to park that's free," says Morris.

Uh, yeah there is. It's called the street. Last time I was in downtown, I was riding with a friend who parked one block away from the Woodward lot. Completely free and we didn't get towed. Imagine that.