Dead rights: Funeral signs not backed by law

Trying to find a parking space downtown is not easy even on the best of days. But funeral-goers get a special perk that operates on the edges of the law when funeral operators put up mini sandwich boards announcing "Funeral Parking" for four-hour stretches of time.

"How is Hill & Wood Funeral Home, a private business, able to commandeer blocks and blocks of city parking spaces?" asks Suzanne Ripley. "Often when I have something to do downtown and it's impossible to find a place to park, I go up Second Street, but I find all these spots reserved by the funeral home."

The issue gained currency last August when spots in a nearby metered city lot doubled from 25 to 50 cents an hour.

Other funeral homes employ the practice– even Teague, located in less-congested Albemarle County.

There's a legal mechanism for reserving parking, says City Planning Director Jim Tolbert. "Maybe once a month people ask to block off one or two spaces for something like a moving van," he says.

The city charges $5 a space for the privilege, Tolbert says, and his office notifies the police traffic department that such a permit has been issued.

City Attorney Lisa Kelley concurs. "It is within the discretion of the traffic engineer to allow temporary use of a public street for parking in connection with a private event," she says, "and to issue or authorize signs reserving spaces for that temporary period of time."

But Tolbert said no such permits had been issued on Thursday, May 27, when Hill & Wood not only deployed their yellow funeral triangles, but also posted "No Parking Towing Enforced" signs on poles for three blocks around the funeral home.

It was the funeral of beloved long-time Charlottesville photographer Billy Gitchell that prompted the sterner warnings.

"People have become numbed and dulled and irritated," says Hill & Wood employee Joe Fields as explanation for the "towing enforced" threats. "We were told by the City we could put those signs up."

Fields, however, was unable to say who in the city or the police department had given permission to put out the "no parking" triangles, claiming that it happened "three years ago." He also did not know the provenance of the "towing enforced" signs– which are also issued by Tolbert's office.

So who did give the funeral home permission to post "towing enforced" signs for big services?

"To my knowledge, staff hasn't found any written record of an official approval of the signs the funeral home was using," says Kelley, "and I haven't been able to find an employee with any institutional memory of that being done."

"We don't issue signs," says Sgt. Ronnie Roberts of the police traffic enforcement division. "If we got a complaint, we would dispatch an officer to investigate, but we haven't had any complaints," he adds.

"It has not been the practice of the City to require community churches or funeral homes to obtain official signs or other approval to block off spaces in front of their buildings for funeral events," says Kelley. "Over the years, things seem to have worked smoothly simply by allowing them to use 'cones' or similar devices to reserve spaces needed for their funeral vehicles during the brief time that a service is under way."

So it's sort of like standing in a spot to reserve it for a friend? Sort of– since the definition of "funeral vehicles" has been expanded to include blocks and blocks of funeral attendees.

Complications posed by private businesses posting "towing enforced" signs are not lost on Tolbert.

"It's confusing," he says. "When anybody can put them up, no one knows which ones are real and which are not."

How effective is the posting? "We don't tow people," Hill and Wood's Fields says. "We can't do anything. It's just a deterrent."

Towing un-enforced