Business owners and community leaders in Towson are searching for a solution after increased enforcement in a pair of private parking lots downtown led to more than 100 vehicles being towed.
"I've probably gotten 15 emails from people who have been towed," Nancy Hafford, Towson Chamber of Commerce executive director, said. "Some of them said they won't come back to Towson because of the experience they had. Others said it left a really bad taste in their mouth. … We're very disappointed that this is being handled this way, because it's adversely affecting the other businesses that surround them."
The two lots — one at 27 Allegheny Ave. and another behind 22 W. Pennsylvania Ave.— are permit-parking only before 5 p.m. on weekdays. On weekends and after 5 p.m. on weeknights, the lots revert to paid parking. Parking receipts, which are to be displayed on a car's dashboard, must be purchased at a parking vending machine station at the private Allegheny lot.
But there has been confusion over signage and where to pay to park in the private lot. The pay stations for private and county lots resemble one another, and business leaders say signage at the private lot is indistinguishable from the county's signage.
Arrows point in the direction of the single pay station at the bottom of 27 Allegheny Ave., but local business owners say the lot behind 22 W. Pennsylvania Ave. has long been considered overflow for the county lot adjacent Allegheny Avenue, and some drivers cannot tell the difference.
In county lots, the Baltimore County Revenue Authority issues tickets for cars with no receipt or an expired one. Several signs at the private lots warn that unauthorized vehicles will be towed, and Pollard's Towing Co. of Towson tows vehicles with expired receipts, no receipts, and even receipts purchased from a Revenue Authority parking station.
Hafford said she and area business owners respect the property owners' ability to charge to park in their lots, but they are seeking a solution to better inform customers about the risks.
Michael Schmidt, an associate for the property manager William H. Campbell & Co., which manages the lots, declined to comment on the issue.
Pollard's Towing also declined to comment.
Ken Mills, the CEO of the Baltimore County Revenue Authority, said he first heard about the problem from Hafford on March 8. That day, he called Schmidt and offered to have the Revenue Authority pay the management group to lease and operate the lot. The management group declined.
After meeting Monday, April 8, with Hafford and Wayne Mixdorf, director of parking for the Revenue Authority, Councilman David Marks said he plans to reach out to Schmidt and revisit the option of the Revenue Authority leasing the lots. If that doesn't work, he said he might consider legislation to make towing signage clearer.
"I have heard from numerous people about this towing problem, from residents who brought friends from out of town to college students who can't really afford a $240 fine," Marks said in a statement. "No one condones illegal parking, but the signage is deceptive and really needs to be changed."
Mills said Schmidt has been responsive, but no steps have been taken to rectify the issue. Local business owners say that every day the issue persists makes the matter worse.
On Saturday, some Towson business owners, including Ciro Scotto, owner of Towson Hot Bagels and Strappazza, spent the day feeding a private parking meter and informing customers of changes to the parking situation that, left unheeded, could lead to their cars getting towed.
Scotto said he's had as many as six customers towed in one evening at Strappazza, and dozens more since the pay stations for the private lots went up. As a result, he has distributed window signs to other area businesses to inform residents of where they can and cannot park.
He has also hung the signs in the Revenue Authority lot. Scotto said the county needs to look out for the business owners and unsuspecting customers who get towed.
"It's a dirty way to do business," he said. "Somebody has to do something."
Carl Fisher, owner of Kent Fisher Furs on Allegheny Avenue, said the "predatory towing" by Pollard's could discourage people from coming to Towson.
"In my honest opinion, the signage is too small to convey the message they're trying to convey," Fisher said. "If the sign is big enough and people understand it, I understand if you tow then. (The lots') ownership needs to work with Towson, not give us a black eye."