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Easton officials bump heads with private parking lot owner over towing of vehicles

By Kevin Lechiski, WFMZ.com Reporter, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Jan 09 2013 10:56:46 PM CST

This sign at a private parking lot downtown issues a towing warning, but city officials said they are concerned the signage is not visible enough and claim motorists who have their vehicles towed are being charged excessively.

EASTON, Pa. -

Easton officials are at odds with the owner of a downtown private parking lot who they say is cracking down on offending motorists at the expense of the city's image.

The private lot in question, owned by Unistar Management, serves the L & D Plaza on Larry Holmes Drive, which includes Bank of America and several other businesses.

For about the last six months, city officials say the property owner has been taking an aggressive stance on towing vehicles not authorized to park there. While the Easton Mayor and City Council acknowledge the owner has the legal right to tow these vehicles, they are concerned many of the vehicles being towed are visitors to the city, and the experience is leaving a bitter taste in their mouths.

The issue was discussed in detail during Wednesday night's City Council meeting. During the meeting, officials said they are hoping to reach an understanding with the owner to have what they believe should be more visible signage installed and to address their concerns that unauthorized vehicles are often being towed away quickly at too high a cost to motorists.

Easton officials say motorists being towed from this private lot are being charged $240, which is double the "going rate" the city charges when towing away an unauthorized vehicle on public property.

Mayor Sal Panto said he is concerned the recent towing of vehicles has had a negative impact on the city's image. "It's bad for the image of the town when someone comes out and doesn't see their car," he said. "They probably are thinking right away that their car was stolen or the city had it towed."

Panto pointed to one recent example involving a Scranton area resident who was visiting the city during the weekend. Seeing the lot empty on the weekend, the person parked there, only to have the vehicle towed and having to wait until after the weekend to get it back.

Panto noted another recent incident in which an elderly couple conducted business at Bank of America and left their car in the lot briefly while stopping at the nearby Post Office. When they returned, their car had been towed. Panto further noted that 10 cars were towed from the lot during one recent afternoon.

Panto said he believes motorists are attracted to the lot especially at night or on holidays when they see a large number of empty spaces.

Councilman Jeffrey Warren said he believes the owner is being "militant" with the towing practices and that the towing cost should be listed on more visible signage.

Councilman Roger Ruggles said that while he understands the owner needs to ensure ample parking for authorized vehicles, he is concerned the towing company serving the property is "taking advantage" with the $240 cost.

Panto said he is concerned visitors to the city who are towed will not return.

When multiple council members questioned whether the $240 towing cost amounted to price gouging, City Solicitor William Murphy said the city has no legal say in the matter since the municipality is not the one being charged. If a motorist believes a cost amounts to price gouging, the individual has ability to file a legal complaint, Murphy said.

During the public portion of the meeting, Bethlehem resident Nanet Peterson said her vehicle was towed from the Bank of America lot on Tuesday. Peterson said she came to the city to make two stops, the Bank of America and the neighboring county office. She did her business at the bank and then the neighboring office. She said her vehicle was towed after being gone just a matter of minutes.

"$240 is a lot money to get your car back," she exclaimed to the mayor and council.

"I wish we could do more," Panto said of an issue "that has become a mountain over what had been a molehill."