THE TOUGH CUSTOMER- Lot of confusion? Towing from Woodard property raises ire

On August 23, Albemarle residents June Russell and her husband, Paul, 79, drove downtown for lunch at an upscale restaurant called Hamilton's to celebrate June's 74th birthday. At around noon, they pulled into the asphalt lot at Second and Market Streets, where they say the manager on duty provided them with an envelope in which to place their $5 parking fee.

According to June Russell, "the manager watched as the money was put in the envelope and put in the box."

When they returned to the lot after lunch, their car had been towed. "The manager had called the towing service at 12:50 to come and take our car," Russell says, "and we were told that we must go to the towing garage [Collier's] and pay $110 cash to get it back."

The couple's trek to Collier's was not easy. Told by a passerby that it was not very far, perhaps a "few blocks," the couple began walking.

"The few block turned out to be nearer a mile," Russell says. "The pains in my chest and arthritis in my hips became so severe I had to stop several times to rest."

And there was the added stress of wondering if they had enough cash to get their car. "We both felt," she says, "that we'd been taken and trapped by opportunists."

And in what might be the understatement of the year, Russell adds, "My birthday had turned into a nightmare."

At Collier's, the couple learned why. They had failed to notice that the envelope included a little tear-off receipt that was to have been placed on the vehicle's dashboard.

"Thinking the receipt was to show we had paid, and would be used to pick up our car," Russell says, "my husband hurriedly put it in his pocket."

The city has received a number of complaints regarding instructions for parking at this lot, says Ric Barrick, director of communications for Charlottesville. Most of the problems occur after hours, he says, when there is no attendant on duty and users must figure out the lot's procedures, which Barrick calls "unusual."

Barrick notes, however, that the lot is private property and no laws are being broken, so there isn't much the City can do. He does admit that the City recently sought to improve the signage at the lot to address the complaints of confusing procedures, and that the lot's owner, Woodard Properties, cooperated with adequate signage.

Yet signage is not the totality of the issue. Russell was astounded that a parking lot manager could watch a couple seal their payment in the envelope and, less than an hour later, call to have their car removed. There's no great age to get towed, but as septuagenarians, the Russells probably felt the pain of getting stuck downtown without a car more than some of us. And their car was hauled nearly 10 hilly blocks away– to Fifth Street Southwest.

Adding insult to injury, in her view, was Woodard Properties' alleged failure to respond to her multiple inquiries.

"The attendant tries to help anyone who does not understand the instructions," Keith Woodard, owner of Woodard Properties, wrote me. "If his instructions were not clear to the Russells, I apologize." Woodard adds since he was not at the lot, he could not comment on what transpired there, but "The attendant certainly should not remove any vehicle that has paid."

Woodard says that "given the uncertainty of the situation," he will refund the cost of the tow to the Russells. That may not explain the curious circumstances of the tow, but at this point, an apology and reimbursement are more than some have gotten.