South End is ground zero for towing — the perils of parking in a party precinct
Thinking about some lavender ice cream at Jeni’s on Camden Road? Tapas and rioja at Barcelona Wine Bar on Worthington Avenue? How about a Hulk Hogan cocktail at Pins Mechanical on Tremont Avenue? The one with blueberry vodka and a popsicle?
If you’re planning a South End celebration for graduation — or for Mother’s Day — prepare to hunt very carefully for legal parking. South End is the towing capital of Charlotte.
City government data shows that three of the top four addresses for towing are in South End. The apartment and office buildings at 222 E. Bland St., 335 Doggett St., and 1300 South Mint St. don’t take kindly to the parking needs of customers at bars and restaurants. Among these three locations alone, 1,064 cars were towed in 2022 – almost three cars per day.
Towing for illegal parking in Charlotte was up 43% between 2020 and 2022, although COVID-19 reduced figures in 2020. And the most prolific towing company in Charlotte — SL Recovery on Rountree Road — towed 10,393 cars in 2022. Located a couple of blocks from South Boulevard, SL Recovery tows almost four times as many cars as its closest competitor.
Nathan Smith, of Kannapolis, was towed last December at Parkside at South Tryon, a South End apartment complex. “I parked at my friend’s apartment, and when I came back, my car was gone,” Smith said. He later found out the apartment complex contracts with SL Recovery. Getting his car back was long, unpleasant, and cost him $265.
Grace Wesoly, of Charlotte, was working at SouthBound restaurant on South Boulevard in 2021 when her car was towed from a Taco Bell parking lot.
“I usually park on the street or find a spot, but that day I was running late and it was so crowded, the only option was the Taco Bell next door,” she said. When Wesoly got off work at midnight, her car wasn’t there. She didn’t notice signs nearby, but a Taco Bell employee gave her the name of the towing company. It cost her $250. Parking is so tight nearby that some businesses provide employees with designated spaces.
Towing used to be the wild west; now it’s just expensive
The North Carolina Supreme Court ruled in 2014 that city ordinances could not place a cap on prices charged by towing companies. Technically, a towing company can charge $1,500 or more to retrieve a vehicle, but most fees range between $150 and $500.
In Charlotte, 2016 amendments to the city ordinance on towing and booting require the prominent display of signs clearly stating where tow-away zones are located; terms and time limits on parking; and phone numbers, company names and street addresses for the facility where the car will be stored. The ordinance also requires towing operators to wear uniforms or carry identification; to accept two credit cards and cash; to permit access to vehicles to retrieve private property; and to have people on-call 24 hours a day to field requests to retrieve a vehicle. Requests must be acknowledged within 15 minutes, and vehicle access provided within 45 minutes.
“Before the city ordinance was revised a couple of years ago, it was like the wild, wild west out there,” said Tom Bartholomy, president of the Better Business Bureau in Charlotte. “So the city council stepped in and put a little bit more meat or more teeth into the ordinance and gave the police department alone, clout in taking care of some of the bad actors.”
Bartholomy also has described more recent scams which present drivers with falsely printed parking citations that request payment through PayPal or Venmo, or fake QR codes pasted over parking signs and meters. He recommended verifying the URL, and calling phone numbers listed on nearby restricted parking signs to ensure that citations are legitimate.
A “trespass tow” occurs when a vehicle is illegally parked on private property. It’s “non-consensual” when the vehicle owner isn’t consulted. “Live towing” is a situation where the owner or manager of a business spots an illegally parked vehicle and immediately calls in a towing service. “Predatory towing” takes place when trucks patrol a parking lot with proper signage, and then immediately tow an illegally parked vehicle. It’s all mostly legal, as long as signage is in place and towing companies follow the ordinance.
The top three towing companies
The three most active towing companies in Charlotte — SL Recovery, Overtime Towing & Transportation, and Carolina Towing — get poor consumer ratings from the Better Business Bureau. Most declined requests for interviews, but a representative of Carolina Towing said many drivers don’t like towing companies simply because of the business they’re in.
Daniel Redford, president of the Charlotte Fraternal Order of Police, explained the process when police become involved. When drivers believe their vehicle has been stolen, officers scan the area, verify property ownership, look for no-parking signs, and check the payment history on the vehicle.
If it’s clear that the vehicle was parked illegally, officers check with their dispatcher, because Charlotte city ordinance requires tow companies to contact CMPD whenever a car is towed. The tow log database tracks these vehicles, so police know if a local towing company was involved.
Solutions? Not many
Bartholomy points out that there aren’t a lot of remedies for drivers. They can file a lawsuit in small claims court, file a complaint with the police, or file with the Better Business Bureau. But towing companies can continue to operate regardless of the number of lawsuits or complaints filed against them. And while the city ordinance requires towing companies to allow drivers to retrieve private property, and allows drivers to interrupt a tow while in process, the companies can still charge fees for this.
The U.S. Public Interest Research Group published a report on predatory towing in 2021 and summarized protections among states. North Carolina ranked somewhere in the middle.
A towing operator's perspective
Michael Melandro has owned Ace Towing for three decades. When his competitors charge $500 to tow a vehicle, he gets concerned about the reputation of the industry, and describes some towing operators as “mean and nasty.”
No-parking signs that display a towing fee of $1,500 are generally scare tactics, he said. But he wouldn’t test them out. He recommends that drivers allow plenty of time to find a legitimate parking space.
“Park legally and don’t bet against the tow truck driver, because these guys are good at it. And they’re going to take your car, and then they’re going to charge you a lot of money,” Melandro said. “As soon as you understand that you don’t have the right to do whatever you want, you do much better in life.”
Jane Lowery contributed to this report.
Palmer Magri is a student in the James L. Knight School of Communication at Queens University of Charlotte, which provides the news service in support of community news.