The high cost of storm parking: tow truck fees

Bolton Hill resident Matt Steen found out the hard way that neighborliness during a snowstorm only goes so far.

When he and his wife couldn't make it up the snow-clogged hill to park in a spot they had shoveled out last week, they parked overnight at a nearby Save-A-Lot store. They figured they could park there because the lot had been plowed and the store was closed. But by the next morning, their truck had been towed.

"By then, there were 3 feet of snow on the ground," said Steen, 33, who works from home for an accounting services company. "I figured a store in the middle of the neighborhood would be a bit of a better neighbor than that. Maybe call off the hounds for an evening or two so people could park."

As the snow piled up to record levels, residents in some of the most difficult-to-maneuver city neighborhoods have found themselves in similar situations and facing fines of as much as $300 to retrieve vehicles. Residents with few parking alternatives have been outraged to find their cars towed from lots for businesses they frequent as customers at a time the city is urging neighbor to help neighbor.

On the flip side, retailers and commercial property owners say they too are facing a parking crunch and need the space for their employees and customers - and they are loath to take on the liability that could come with opening their lots to the masses.

Snowstorm or no snowstorm, a policy is a policy, said a spokeswoman for Save-A-Lot, the landlord in the shopping center where Steen parked his truck and where posted signs clearly designate the spots for customers only. The signs warn that cars parked illegally will be towed at owners' expense and risk.

"It's still enforced," said Maureen Shannon, the spokeswoman. "It's our policy for the safety of our customers and those in that shopping complex."

The Rev. Mark Huffman, pastor of a Lutheran church in Lutherville, said he understands such policies during normal times. But he was incredulous when his 22-year-old daughter called him Saturday, crying and saying that her car was about to be towed from the large Safeway lot in Canton.

His daughter, Jodi Huffman, said she was standing near the tow truck, keys in hand, begging the driver to let her drive her car away. She said tow trucks were working to remove about 50 cars, all with orange violation stickers on their windshields. The Luzerne Avenue resident said she had checked on her car just the night before.

"I wasn't leaving it there being lazy," she said. "There was literally nowhere else to park. I was sure [it was OK] because there was no street parking because of the snow. ... I didn't think they would ever come out and tow."

Huffman, a special-education teacher, said she's staying in Timonium until some of the snow melts. Mark Huffman helped his daughter retrieve her car from the towing company for $240.

"That's her food budget for the month - the food she buys at Safeway," he said.

Calls to officials with Safeway's eastern division were not returned Monday.

Another resident of Canton, Matt Danowski, said he drove home from his job as an electrical engineer late Sunday night to find that all the parking spaces had been taken or reserved with lawn chairs - a Baltimore tradition.

In the past, he has parked in a pinch overnight in Rite Aid's lot and says "they've been decent about it." But when he returned at 7:30 a.m. Monday, his car was gone, and two tow trucks were at work removing two other cars. He had his roommate drive him to the Auto Barn towing company's lot in West Baltimore and paid $260 to get his car. He said the experience has made him less likely to shop at Rite Aid, just blocks from his home.

"I understand where they're coming from, but their customer base is a big part of this community, and we patronize them," he said. "Something like this, with the snow, it's kind of a slap in the face to be honest."

Cheryl Slavinsky, a spokeswoman for the drugstore chain, said the retailer usually doesn't mind if area residents park in the lot between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.

"We don't like to tow cars. Usually it's not a problem, except when there's snow," she said. "When there's snow it becomes a safety issue. We can't plow because people aren't moving their cars. In that case, we've had to tow."

City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Canton, said Monday he heard numerous complaints from residents about Safeway towing cars. He said the grocery chain, at a corporate level, refused a previous city request to open the lot to the public during the snow emergency.

Now, he is trying to work out an arrangement in which residents would get warning notices on their cars - giving them more than just three hours' notice - before cars are towed. He has not heard back from Safeway.

"People in the neighborhood don't understand it if [the store] is closed and you park at night and go to work in the morning, and your car has been towed," he said. "This is something they could do to accommodate these communities."

To deal with the shortage of street parking while continuing to plow side streets, city officials have opened some school parking lots and city-owned parking garages for free parking. Officials have been focusing snow removal efforts on areas around schools, which will remain closed today. Residents may continue to park on designated school lots until 5 a.m. Wednesday.

But "we have not advised any citizens to park on any commercial lots," said Kathy Chopper, a spokeswoman for the city's Department of Transportation. She said commercial owners make their own arrangements with private towing companies, and the city "has nothing to do with towing vehicles off commercial lots."

She said her department has not heard complaints about towing from commercial lots, although "we have gotten quite a few inquiries about where citizens can put their cars."

One Fells Point business owner, frustrated by the pace of snow removal, decided to take matters into his own hands. Ron Furman, the owner of Max's Taphouse, was walking in the neighborhood Friday when he said he slipped and fell on ice at Lancaster Street and Broadway.

"I almost broke my neck," Furman said. "I just said that was it and went up and got the tractor."

The Upperco resident said he plowed out side streets and parking spaces on Sunday as well as Monday morning, starting at 5 a.m. He plowed out the east side of the 700 block of Broadway and planned to hit the west side as well. He also said he plowed the 1600 block of Lancaster St. as well as Shakespeare Street.

"Nobody had been down there," said Furman, owner of Max's for 23 years. "I opened that up. It's gotta get done."

Baltimore Sun reporter Liz F. Kay contributed to this article.

School's still out No school today in the city and Baltimore, Howard, Harford and Anne Arundel counties.