It might not be downtown Charleston's biggest problem, but for the unlucky few, it might be the most exasperating.
We're talking about the practice of private parking lot owners and towing companies who are quick — many would say way too quick — to tow away any vehicle whose owner left it parked in a private space just a little too long.
Mayor John Tecklenburg has heard the passionate complaints of those whose cars have been hauled away and notes that they have a point when they cite either broken meter equipment, rude tow truck drivers or no grace period whatsoever. “In my opinion, they rightfully get very upset,” he says. “It’s a black eye on all of us.”
We agree, and we urge Charleston residents and visitors to be particularly careful whenever they decide to venture downtown and use such private parking spaces. But we also realize it’s not enough simply to say “Buyer beware.”
On Monday, Mayor Tecklenburg proposed that City Council consider requiring that a police officer or parking enforcement officer be present on-site before any such non-consensual tow can take place. That’s the approach the city of North Myrtle Beach recently implemented to address a similar problem there.
We’re not sure that’s the best approach, and neither were members of council’s Traffic and Transportation Committee. We do feel strongly the city should do something to ensure a greater sense of fair play. City Councilman Mike Seekings suggested this might be better regulated through the city’s business license process. He noted that non-consensual towing occurs both at private lots where people are supposed to pay to park and at privately owned lots reserved only for customers of a particular business.
In some of these arrangements, the towing company’s deal with the property owner gives the company a financial incentive to tow away as many vehicles as possible. We’re not sure that can be changed, but we are sure there are ways the city can address the problem.
The city is at an early enough stage where it can explore other ideas, as long as the process of exploring them eventually results in a substantive change for council members to vote in the next few months. One key issue not mentioned Monday is the adequacy of signs that spell out the ground rules for parking on these private lots.
While the city operates a vast network of surface parking lots and garages, as well as hundreds of on-street parking places, parking downtown remains in high demand. So owners of vacant lots understandably will keep looking for ways to monetize them by providing parking to the public, often at rates higher than the city’s.
That’s the free market at work, but the city also has an interest — from the standpoint of both preserving the quality of life for residents and protecting its reputation as a friendly tourism destination — to ensure that those who provide public parking for pay don’t behave in a predatory way.
Those less familiar with downtown likely find parking challenging enough without finding their vehicle being hauled off by a tow truck simply because they returned to it a minute too late.