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Drivers beware, you may not want to park your car there

South Congaree, SC – Vehicles owners who feel secure in parking their cars or trucks in a well-lit often underused parking lot festooned with security cameras, normally feel sure that their vehicle will be where they left it when they return. This in fact is not the case with some parking lots across the county and in other parts of the Midlands and the state. As a case in point, let’s take a look at the towing policy of the property management firm at the Food Lion located at the intersection of Pine and Main Streets in South Congaree.

Recently, a certified mechanic who was trying to help a women of modest means, parked his truck in the expansive lot at the Food Lion where the woman worked as a cashier. He knew the woman through church and was trying to do her a favor by repairing her vehicle while she was working.

He left his truck, moved over to her car that was seriously knocking when she drove it to work, and returned to his shop. He planned to repair her car and return it to her the next day. It was a way he thought he could help someone who was a little down on their luck.

The mechanic kept the car overnight and repaired it; a good Samaritan sort of thing. When he drove the woman’s car back to the Food Lion the next day to return it and retrieve his truck, the truck was gone!

At first he thought that someone might have stolen it. When he went inside and spoke to the manager of the Food Lion about the missing truck, he was shocked to find that his was just one of a number of vehicles that had been towed from the lot. It had been removed by a local wrecker firm because it was left unattended after hours.

As it turns out, County Towing off Princeton Road in West Columbia has an agreement with CAPE Property Management, the company who manages the property that houses the Food Lion and the other smaller stores at that strip shopping center. That agreement allows County Towing to check the lot after hours and tow any unattended vehicles that are left in the lot after the businesses close. Those vehicles are towed to County’s lot where they are stored in a secure area until the vehicle’s owner comes and retrieves it.

In order to get your transportation back, a vehicle’s owner must show that they in fact own the vehicle and then pay the towing bill and whatever storage County Towing charges. This is all very legal and is spelled out in SC Code 16-11-760. The owner of the vehicle could be charged with a misdemeanor by local law enforcement and fined up to $25 by the courts according to the law.

According to Sheila Mintz, co-owner at County Towing, once a car is towed from the Food Lion’s lot or any other private property that’s not in downtown Columbia, that vehicle’s owner owes County Towing $150. The actual distance from Food Lion to County Towing is 2 miles if checked by MapQuest. If a car stays on County’s storage lot more than 12 hours, it begins to accrue a daily storage fee of $30 per day until the owner retrieves it.

Mintz explained that the managers at Food Lion should be aware of the property’s policy. If any employee’s car needs to stay in the lot after normal business hours, they should mark it with a piece of paper placed on the dash. That paper should state that the car in question belongs to an employees of Food Lion. It also indicates that the car has a legitimate reason to be in the lot after hours or overnight.

Mintz said she has even provided some of the cards for employees of Food Lion to use.

This would be the case with employees who might clean or stock a store like Food Lion after hours or overnight. This also affects the other businesses like the Subway, Chinese restaurant, or SC Works, that all call that shopping center home.

County does have small signs posted at each entrance to the lot. Those signs read; “no overnight parking, no semis, no sale cars.” These signs, approximately 12”x14”, also appear to meet the letter of the law. In a practical sense, the signs are extremely difficult to recognize as important to read before parking.

A quick poll of people who were going in and out of and parking in the South Congaree Food Lion lot on a normally busy afternoon found no one who had seen the signs and knew what they said. Even employees who have worked in the center for many years said they weren’t aware of the towing policy that would cost

them big if they left their cars overnight.

Only one employee of Food Lion who was taking a break outside the store on a recent afternoon admitted to knowing what the parking and towing policy for the plaza was. That employee said she had recently been made aware of the policy, but wasn’t sure where to get one of the dash placards if he needed to leave her car overnight.

A member of the management team at Food Lion said during a recent encounter, “We can only control what happens inside the store from the edge of our front sidewalk to our back wall. We have no control over the property management company who has apparently set that policy and entered into that agreement with the towing company.” That representative referred The Ledger’s staff to their corporate office in NC for any further comment regarding the situation.

South Congaree Police Chief Josh Shumpert said that he has received numerous complaints regarding the tow policy at the Food Lion, but his hands are tied. According to Shumpert, he personally feels as if the towing policy is bad business and it’s unfair to the people who have had their cars towed. “It’s alarming to see people treated like this, but it is in no way against the law,” Shumpert said in a recent telephone interview.

Chief Shumpert said the manager that he had spoken to at Food Lion was livid about the recent towing incident. “It reflects poorly against the businesses who are located in that center when apparently they don’t have any control over it,” Shumpert said. “Even though Food Lion didn’t make the policy, they get the blame,” Shumpert continued.

The chief said that he knew of at least one instance that occurred during the July rodeo that appeared to hurt the town. A person who had come to the rodeo had his vehicle towed after leaving it overnight at the Food Lion. “In that case, this guest to our community said that he wouldn’t return next year because of the towing practice,” Shumpert concluded.

The Food Lion’s lot is not unique in that it is covered by such an agreement. Any property owner can enter into an agreement with a towing company regarding their parking lots and most do.

Just in the area around the airport we found that the Food Lion near the Taco Bell and the lot behind the McDonald’s at Emanuel Church and Platt Springs Roads were also covered under contract by County Towing. They also handle the lot where the Food Lion is in Red Bank.

The lot of the BI-LO at Old Barnwell and Emanuel Church Roads is covered under contract to Schroder’s Towing, a midsized company that has been in business for years. Schroder’s literally covers hundreds of lots across the Midlands, according to company owner Chris Schroder.

All of the towing company operators we contacted said that the property owners or managers set the tone and policy for towing from their lots. Schroder said that most properties that have permitted parking spots, like an apartment complex, have a zero tolerance policy for parking without a permit. This means that if the space requires a permit and a vehicle is parked there without one, it is automatically towed without question and at the owner’s expense.

This is also the case that most shopping plazas have regarding large semi-trucks. In the case of those, they are usually automatically towed without question, because their above average weight tends to tear

up and eventually destroy the asphalt in lots.

All of the towing operators that we contacted after speaking with the management of County Towing said they were shocked to hear that a lot like the one at Food Lion in South Congaree had a zero tolerance policy for cars and light trucks. In those cases, towing operators said that they wouldn’t tow a vehicle without first receiving a complaint from one of the tenant businesses. “Unless a car had obviously been abandoned for some time, we would require the business manager sign an authorization prior to towing,” one operator told us during an interview. “That would cover us and prevent us from being accused of predatory towing, an accusation that can ruin a towing company’s good name.”

Property owners and managers say that the law that allows them to have vehicles towed from their lots is necessary. It allows them to stop people from using their lots as impromptu used car lots and limits their liability. It also lets them have large trucks towed when drivers park them in their lots overnight. Drivers often do this because they don’t have the room necessary to park their large trucks at their home.

Property owners say that people whose cars have been dinged and damaged in a parking lot have tried to sue or seek reimbursement from them. They often ask for money to repair the damage on their cars. This is obviously unfair to the property’s owner, especially ones who try to do everything within their power to keep their lot safe.

In the case of the mechanic’s car being towed, the management at County Towing say that they got a black-eye for doing what they’ve been instructed and contracted to do. “The woman from the Food Lion first lied to us and told us it was her car that had been towed. Even after we found out that it wasn’t her car, we still dramatically cut the cost of the impound to $85 just to try and help them out,” the spokesperson for County said.

Ronnie McManus, the owner of County Towing, pointed out that he had overhead just like everyone else.

He said that he always operates within the laws regarding towing from private properties like the Food Lion. “We have to buy the signs that are posted at each entrance to the lot and then pay the expenses of operating the trucks,” he said. “We are doing what we are told and following the law and we still get bashed on Facebook and social media by people who just don’t know that they can’t park anywhere they want to.”

Clearly in the case of the Food Lion parking lot in South Congaree, there is a miscommunication between the properties’ management and its tenants, their employees, and the public. We did contact a representative of CAPE Property Management regarding this story, but they had no comment.

All drivers and vehicle owners need to watch closely as they enter into any parking lot for signs that spell out that lot’s parking policy. It might also pay to ask employees or managers in the store how strictly a lot’s policy is enforced. In the case of the lot in South Congaree, drivers beware. You park under a strict towing policy that may seriously cramp your budget.

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