Supreme Court Keeps Towing Ordinance, Drops Cell Phone Rule

The Supreme Court has decided against passing the law that would ban cell phone use whilst driving in Chapel Hill. The law would have also constrained towing in the town as well.

Despite the back-and-forth discussion since 2012, the ordinance had not gone into effect due to various legal issues. This latest decision to strike down the law was agreed upon unanimously.

Manager of a local towing business, George King, sued Chapel Hill over both laws. Due to the rule that would require towers to alert police within 15 minutes of making a tow, King said he could not perform his job properly without also infraction on the cell phone law.

The Supreme Court has noted that while they already have restrictions place on the use of cell phones and driving, they are completely in their rights to enforce the laws regarding towing procedure. Some regulations about towing were also struck down, but others, such as wrecker drivers updating police before towing vehicles and impound lots be located within 15 miles of town, will still remain.

WCHL’s Aaron Keck welcomed Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt to the Thursday Afternoon News to discuss the court’s ruling.

***Listen to the Conversation***

Carrboro BOA The Latest To Tackle Towing

CARRBORO – At a meeting earlier this month, the Board had harsh words for the increase in towing efforts at Carr Mill Mall. On Tuesday night, representatives from the Mall gave their side of the story.

Here’s Nick Robinson, an attorney for Carr Mill Mall.

“The town needs to acknowledge that Carrboro does not actually have a towing problem, and that Carr Mill Mall is not the problem,” says Robinson. “It’s now time to acknowledge the real problem and call it what it is: Carrboro’s municipal parking shortage. The town, through its ordinances, policies and permits, has created a parking shortage of its own making.” 

The issue was not originally on the June 11 agenda, but was brought up when a representative from Southern Rail had some scathing words for the management of Carr Mill Mall—which the board agreed with.

Cindy McMahan, the owner of Elmo’s Diner, also signed up to speak at Tuesday night’s public hearing. McMahan has owned Elmo’s Diner and operated in Carr Mill Mall for nearly 22 years, and says listening to a replay of the June 11 meeting left her feeling disheartened.

“My business has probably generated $35 million for the Town of Carrboro and I feel forgotten,” says McMahan. “It hurts my feelings, for my staff, for my customers and for the other tenants in the mall. I’m not afraid to work hard, but it’s just not fair how you are treating Carr Mill Mall.”

McMahan added that just hours before the meeting, she encountered visitors who illegally parked in the Carr Mill Mall parking lot. Although she verbally warned them they could be towed and fined, she says they still elected to leave their car in the lot while eating at a restaurant across the street.

The Board had mixed feelings about the words from Robinson and McMahan.  Alderman Jacquelyn Gist says she feels the town owes some loyalty to local businesses such as Elmo’s.

“We have a Carrboro business that helped build Carrboro whose being negatively impacted by the lack of parking, and that’s not fair,” says Gist. “I think there is right and wrong on both sides. I’d be really happy if the signage was good and people could read it, but we also need to protect existing businesses as new ones come in.”

But Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton took issue with some of the words spoken against the Aldermen, especially from the mall’s attorney.

“I feel like the letter that we received shortly after our June 11 meeting, I guess it just feels a bit disingenuous to say for me to hear a bunch of complains about what happened at the June 11 meeting or what happened at previous meetings before that, and then be told that those things are water under a bridge,” says Chilton. “If they were water under a bridge, you wouldn’t be up here complaining about them.”

Chilton specifically mentioned the new garage at 300 East Main and the purchase of the lot at 203 S Greensboro St of examples of the town’s recent actions to help alleviate the issue.

It wasn’t just store owners and legal advisers who spoke against the recent towing stipulations. Barnes Towing, Talbert’s Towing and T Roy Towing all agreed to speak with town staff regarding their issues with the ordinance in its current state.

Although enforcement has recently increased at Carr Mill Mall, the town’s updated towing ordinance has been in place since 2011. The ordinance is very similar to Chapel Hill’s— it requires companies to accept credit and debit cards, places limits on the corresponding fine to $100, and mandates proper signage at all lots.

Tuesday’s meeting was the last official Board of Aldermen meeting before the Board’s summer recess. The Aldermen are scheduled to hold their annual retreat this Sunday afternoon, after which they will further discuss the possibly of allowing residential space in the 300 East Main Street property. Stay tuned to WCHL and for the latest developments.

CH Towing Ordinance Effective Monday

CHAPEL HILL – On Monday, Chapel Hill’s towing ordinance that was once struck down by a North Carolina Superior Court Judge takes effect.

On June 4, the state Court of Appeals reversed the court’s ruling that struck down Chapel Hill’s ordinance. The town originally adopted the ordinance in March 2012, but the ordinance never took effect because George King, operator of George’s Towing, challenged the Town Council.

The new ordinance regulates and caps tow fees, it states that lots may not be located farther than 15 miles outside the town, and requires adequate signage for tow zones. Tow companies must also provide the person making the payment for the tow with a copy of the “Town of Chapel Hill Towing Information Handout”.

If a person returns to their car before it can be towed, the tow truck operator must return the car to the person without charging a fee unless the vehicle was already attached to the truck. If it was, a fee no more than $50 may be charged.

The ordinance also says a call to the towing company must be returned within 15 minutes of a message being left. Within 30 minutes of the call being answered or message being left, a person with the proper authority must release the location of the vehicle.

Carrboro Ready To Act On Towing Complaints

CARRBORO – A week after the state Court of Appeals upheld Chapel Hill’s ability to enforce its towing laws, a Carrboro resident has filed a complaint against Barnes Towing for violating the Town Code.

Among the rules that Josh Arenth, the man in question, is accusing Barnes Towing of violating is exceeding the maximum $100 fine and not accepting payment by credit or debit card. Arenth says his car was towed from the Carr Mill Mall parking lot after he went to a nearby shop not served by the lot.

Carrboro Mayor Mark Chilton says multiple complaints have been filed against multiple towing companies in Carrboro, but town officials did not know to what authority they had to respond.

“With the recent decision in George’s Towing v. Town of Chapel Hill, I think it’s clear that we do have the power to act,” Chilton said.

The Superior Court ruled that Chapel Hill’s towing regulations, including maximum fines, easily accessible lots and acceptance of credit and debit cards, were unconstitutional. This made towns like Carrboro unsure of what enforceable power they had until the Court of Appeals’ overruling decision.

To act upon Town Code violations by towing companies, Mayor Chilton says the town must first receive a complaint from a citizen.

“When we receive complaints, we’re definitely taking them seriously and investigating,” Chilton said.

Barnes Towing released a statement saying they do not violate the Town Code and they are unaware of Arenth’s case.

Busy Night Ahead For CHTC

CHAPEL HILL – The Chapel Hill Town Council will review towing regulations and the town’s cell phone driving ban at a meeting Monday.

Earlier this month, the North Carolina Supreme Court dissolved an injunction that had prevented the town from enforcing rules against predatory towing .

Now, it’s set to go into effect next Monday unless the council decides otherwise.

When the council enacted Chapel Hill’s cell phone driving ban in March of last year, it was the first in the nation to prohibit the use of both hand-held and hands-free devices behind the wheel.

Last week, the chair of the National Transportation Safety Board wrote to the mayor in support of the ban, citing new research on the dangers of using hands-free devices while driving.

However, opponents say the ban is an over-reach of authority that leaves the town open to more lawsuits.

The council will consider reviving an educational campaign on the ban that was delayed during litigation.

The council will also hear the town manager’s response to petitions regarding employee grievances, and consider possible changes in how the Personnel Appeals Committee resolves conflicts involving town employees.

The council meets at 7:00 p.m. Monday in Council Chambers at Town Hall.


Mayor Kleinschmidt: Court Of Appeals Made Right The Call

CHAPEL HILL – In King versus Town of Chapel Hill, the state court of appeals has overturned a ruling by the superior court that a ban on towing practices in Chapel Hill was unconstitutional.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt says the decision is an important ruling for towns who want to protect their citizens.

“About a year ago, there was a N.C. Supreme Court decision that came down that seemed to limit the power of local government to do what we had thought were obvious things,” Mayor Kleinschmidt said. “It brings us all a little more comfort that local government has a little bit more authority than we had thought last year.”

The court of appeals also ruled that it will not make a decision regarding the ban on driving while using a phone – a ban the lower courts ruled unconstitutional. Instead, the court asked for future plaintiffs to bring the case forward again for further review.

In addition to the city’s ability to regulate towing, Mayor Kleinschmidt also affirms the authority of other state bodies to make policy.

“When the board of trustees decides its in the best interests of students to be able to provide for gender-neutral housing and they make a case for how it has the potential to protect students here at UNC-Chapel Hill then I think we should be able to trust that this decision, made at a local level, that that’s the best place for these decision to be made,” Mayor Kleinschmidt said.

Mayor Kleinschmidt criticizes the General Assembly for banning the gender neutral housing policy put into place by UNC’s board of trustees, a board indirectly appointed by voters.

“Unfortunately, this legislature, not withstanding a lot of their rhetoric over local control over issues, is inserting itself in places where, I think most folks would agree, they don’t belong,” Mayor Kleinschmidt said.

Looking between the legislature’s criticisms of regulations put into place by cities and the legislature’s own counter to UNC’s housing policy, Mayor Kleinschmidt says he sees two different messages being sent out by the representatives.

“It would be nice if the General Assembly were to have a consistent position around local control and respect those who are in the best position to make decisions,” Mayor Kleinschmidt said. “But I don’t think we’re going to get that any time soon with this legislature.”

The new ordinances on towing and phone use are set to take effect June 24th and will be discussed at a public hearing Monday.

Chapel Hill Towing Ordinance Receives Court Of Appeals Hearing Monday

CHAPEL HILL – The issue of towing is once again back in the spotlight in Chapel Hill as George’s Towing will appear before the State Court of Appeals Monday in regards to a town towing ordinance.

According to the News and Observer, George’s Towing will appear before a three-judge panel to express that the Town overstepped its authority last year.

The ordinance in question was enacted in response to complaints about predatory towing in downtown Chapel Hill. Residents and visitors alike complained that in many lots, there weren’t enough clear signs indicating where it was and wasn’t acceptable to park—and that when they were towed, they were forced to find transportation to a distant lot, nowhere near an ATM, to find that the operators would only release their cars if they paid in cash.

Most of the complaints centered around the one company, George’s Towing, owned by George King—and it was King who filed suit against the Town when it enacted the ordinance.

In August, Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson issued a sweeping ruling, striking down not only the towing ordinance, but the controversial first-in-the-nation cell-phone driving ban.

The Town Council voted to appeal the ruling which forced Monday’s hearing.

Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt as well as the Town’s attorney Ralph Karpinos will be in attendance. Karpinos will be delivering the argument on behalf of the Town.

The three-judge court of appeals panel will rule on Monday whether or not the Town was within its legal boundaries when creating the ordinance.

Downtown Parking Dilemma

Recently I was able to get together with a dear friend to catch up on each other’s busy summers.  We were able to work out a day when we were both free for lunch and after some back and forth about our options we agreed we’d like to go to one of two downtown restaurants but neither of us, we agreed, wanted to “deal with parking”.

After elaborate logistical planning allowing me to do a necessary errand and then meeting to travel in only one car (to ease the parking search), my clever companion arrived to collect me.  She came with a plan, basically it was an escape route.  We agreed on one circuit through downtown looking for parking and if it wasn’t meant to be, well then, we had a Plan B, and a yummy one at that.  And one with a parking lot.  Let me say that many times Plan B has been my first choice and is very yummy separate from its convenient lot.  

I’ll jump to the end of the story because where we parked is not the point of this column.  We did one circuit and found a nearly empty lot.  We looked at each other and it was if finding an oasis in the desert.  We soon found out why it was empty between noon and 1pm on a weekday:  the broken credit card reader in the payment machine.  We scrounged enough change to get us through lunch, parked and enjoyed our luck, our lunch, and our conversation. 

Of course the point is that we had money to spend, wanted to spend it downtown and were dis-incentivized to do so.  We got past our misgivings and it worked out but notice that I considered it luck.  And the luck came from broken equipment.  

There are a few truths I must offer in the ongoing conversation about downtown and parking:

  1. My friend Dwight Bassett, Chapel Hill’s former Economic Development Officer, used to tell me there’s more public parking than ever available downtown.  I believe him.  
  2. I loved living in and near New York City where there’s no expectation of finding parking anywhere ever. It never kept me from eating in a particular restaurant. 
So why the attitude I describe above?  Part of me thinks it’s because I’m spoiled with being able to go many place by car and park- easily – for free.  But the NYC example points to the opposite; I was quite willing to use my feet, the bus and/or subway and, if in very high heels (I was young), a taxi.  I can’t resist adding here that while parking violations are quickly written in Manhattan, I don’t remember seeing tow trucks waiting for someone to cross the street in order to tow a car. 

Taken together, I’m starting to form a better understanding of the contradictions at the crux of this dilemma.  Now it’s your turn to come up with the answers!  Leave a comment below or write to me at

Cell Phones, Towing, & Teachers

Back in April I wrote about the Chapel Hill Town Council (CHTC) banning both handheld and hands-free cell phone use by drivers (with limited exceptions).  

The point of my column then was not to root for distracted driving; it was to point out the pointless use of public (staff) time and money in defending this law, when the CHTC had an opinion from the North Carolina Attorney General’s office that it may be unenforceable.  Yes, the opinion said “may”.  It didn’t say “not”.  But with the scales of justice tipped against you and lots of other priorities facing the town, I questioned the decision.  

Turns out both the Attorney General’s office and I were right.  Don’t you just love how I managed to puff myself up there?  Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson’s reason was in line with the AG’s office opinion: the town can’t enact laws where state law is comprehensive.  So, given that ruling, is this the finale of this folly?  Or should I prepare to stop listening to WCHL in the morning because that Ron Stutts fellow can be awfully distracting.  

In that same ruling Judge Hudson struck down the town’s law regulating towing.  His reasoning there was that it violates the state constitution by regulating trade.  

In Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt’s response (at bottom of this link) to the double loss in court, he spoke of only one: the towing ordinance.  I’m hoping his targeted response indicates his view of the town’s future priorities.

As to the towing regulations, we rarely hear from the businesses that contract with the towing companies.  Clearly the property owners must agree to allow cameras affixed so the towing companies can pounce the minute someone places a toe off property.  Do the property owners get a piece of the fee car owners must pay?  That would explain why they believe it’s in their businesses’ best interests to allow such practices.  I wonder if we polled those who’ve had their car towed from a downtown business if we’d find many of them had eagerly returned to spend money downtown, and more pointedly, to the business from which their car was towed.  Perhaps the business owners who encourage, condone and contract with towing companies are cutting off their proverbial noses?  Unless of course they are making money from the towing.  

Let me know what you think of my many opinions by writing to me at

p.s.  I continue to receive an extraordinary amount of email regarding my previous columns (one and two) on the involuntary transfer of Chapel Hill High School teachers Anne Thompson and Bert Wartski.  Among the correspondents, Mr. Wartski, who has offered to waive his confidentiality rights with regard to the Chapel Hill Carrboro City School Board’s review and subsequent denial of his appeal of the transfer.  So, can we learn the whole story now?