By Susan Dickson
CHAPEL HILL â€“Â Following a judgeâ€™s decision last week that the Town of Chapel Hill could not enforce its towing or cell phone ordinances, the Chapel Hill Town Council on Monday enacted a new towing ordinance, changing a provision that would have put it in conflict with the townâ€™s cell phone ban.
However, the town is still unable to enforce the ordinance at this point. Last week, Durham Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson granted a preliminary injunction preventing the town from enforcing either ordinance, saying he agreed with a challenge by George King of Georgeâ€™s Towing and Recovery on the grounds that the ordinances could cause Kingâ€™s business irreparable harm.
The Town of Chapel Hill now has the opportunity to file a response to Kingâ€™s complaint.
Thomas Stark, Kingâ€™s attorney, argued that the provision in the towing ordinance requiring towing companies to answer calls to the number posted on towing signs would cause small towing companies whose phone number is that of the cell phone of the truck operator to be in violation of the cell phone ordinance by complying with the towing ordinance.
Stark said Tuesday that he didnâ€™t believe the changes approved by the council resolved the issues with the ordinance, which he argued exceeds the scope of the enabling statute granted by the state. Moreover, Stark said, the enabling statute itself is unconstitutional on the grounds that it regulates commerce.
The cell phone ordinance, approved by the council in March, was to be enacted June 1. It would have prohibited the use of cell phones or any additional technology while operating a car in town, carrying a $25 fine for violation.
On Monday, the council voted 7-2 to enact a towing ordinance that would require towing companies to answer phone calls or return voicemails from vehicle owners within 15 minutes, instead of requiring that the phone call be answered as previously proposed.
Council member Matt Czajkowski said he did not want to vote to change the towing ordinance in order to accommodate the cell phone ordinance, which he opposed.
The council approved changes tightening the townâ€™s towing ordinance in February, responding to concerns about predatory towing practices. The changes, which were to go into effect May 1, would have limited towing fees to $125 town-wide; would require towing companies to accept multiple forms of payment, including credit and debit cards; and require that one sign be posted at every third parking space and a sign be posted notifying drivers of video surveillance, in addition to signage previously required at the entrance to the lots.
Stark has also argued that the signage requirements would be a huge cost burden as well as unsightly. Matthew Sullivan, Chapel Hill Police legal advisor, said staff had heard from representatives of Village Plaza and University Mall who were concerned about the quantity of signs required in large parking lots, and council members said they would like to look at modifying the ordinance to consider different signage requirements for different types of lots.
Sullivan will return to the council with a modified ordinance on May 30.