Courtesy of The Tampa Tribune
January 19, 2012
CARROLLWOOD -- At
night, men in tow trucks troll the neighborhood under cover of darkness,
checking vehicles for parking permits to the faint glow of flashlights.
Some nights, dozens of cars, trucks and SUVs are hauled
away as residents in this quiet complex of two-story townhomes in northwest
Hillsborough County still are sleeping.
|The nightly towing began in November after the
Fletcher's Mill Townhomes Association Board of Directors signed a contract with Riteway Enterprises to crack down on violators of the community's bylaws, which limit townhome residents to two vehicles.
Members of the board say they are trying to enforce the parking rule
-- it has been on the books since 1983 -- in response to growing complaints from residents about unregistered, abandoned and stolen vehicles taking parking spots in the community.
Some longtime residents tell a different story.
"There was never a problem with parking,"
nightly towing began in November after the Fletcher's Mill directors
signed a contract with Riteway Enterprises.
Wendy Mutunhu, who owns several townhomes. "The board has sanctioned this company to prey on our community."
What's more, Mutunhu and others maintain the board's treasurer, Hugh Cooper, personally benefitted from the contract because his stepson recently got a job at the towing company.
"That's clearly a conflict of interest for him [Cooper] to sign that contract," Mutunhu said.
The rancor began in the early hours of Nov. 1, just before 4 a.m., when residents say a crew of burly men arrived in the neighborhood in tow trucks. They had lists and began checking for parking stickers with flashlights, flagging vehicles for removal.
Some people confronted them with stories of losing their jobs and not being able to afford the cost. Others watched in anger as their vehicles were hitched to wreckers.
"They were actually going car to car, looking in them with flashlights," said resident Diana Abarca, whose husband tried to stop them from towing away vehicles.
So many vehicles were towed away -- 17 or more, by some counts -- that wreckers used a medical office parking lot down the street as a temporary staging area to accommodate them.
* * * * *
To get them back the next day, residents had to get a ride to the towing company and pay $205. To retrieve their vehicle on the spot, residents had to pay a $105 penalty.
Since then, residents say, the trucks troll the parking lots nightly, checking for violators.
"We don't know when they're coming, but every night they come back," Abarca said.
George Darrell Kinkaid, president of Riteway Enterprises, denied his company was engaged in predatory towing in Fletcher's Mill and said everything is legal.
"We're just performing a service," he said. "Any disagreement between the board and the residents over the towing policy has nothing to do with our company."
He acknowledged the treasurer's stepson, Michael Sforza, worked for Riteway. But he said Sforza's employment there had nothing to do with the contract signed by the board.
"He has been here for some time and works in a completely different division," Kinkaid said.
A senior official at the county's Public Transportation Commission said there have been no complaints against Riteway for predatory towing practices or other violations.
"They are a very reputable company," said Mario Tamargo, the commission's chief inspector.
* * * * *
Mutunhu said the issue has divided the community, fueling fear and mistrust.
"There are lot of people in this community who are losing their jobs and homes, but losing their car really has them on edge," she said.
Charles Forrester, a retired Hillsborough County sheriff's deputy who has lived in Fletcher's Mill with his wife for 15 years, said he believes the board has overstepped its authority.
"No outside entity should have jurisdiction over property owners on behalf of the board of directors," he said. "This has created undue fear and a financial burden on residents."
Forrester said he and others believe the towing company is violating Public Transportation Commission regulations that vehicles cannot be towed beyond 10 miles. The distance between Fletcher's Mill and Riteway's East Broadway office is 13 miles.
Dena Diab of University Properties Inc., a Tampa-based property management firm that advises the board of directors, said the board is within its rights to tow cars that violate the bylaws.
She declined further comment.
Attempts to reach Sforza, Cooper or the board's president, Ned Fraher, were unsuccessful.
Angela Reagan, the board's vice president, said the new policy was implemented with full authority of the board following many complaints about illegal parking issues.
"We had a problem," she said. "We had people who don't live here parking their cars overnight and there's been abandoned and even stolen cars and other problems."
Reagan said residents received more than one month's notice about the towing policy.
"Anytime you implement a new policy," she said, "you're not going to have 100 percent of the people who are happy. I wish instead of complaining people would get involved."
That's just what residents have done, said Mutunhu and others.
Neighbors who didn't know each other have banded together, organizing underground meetings and circulating a petition calling on the board to end the nightly towing.
"This has really brought people together," Abarca said.
The divisive issue also has emboldened some residents to begin asking other questions about the board's effectiveness
-- about lengthy delays in maintenance requests and the $8,000 resurfacing of the community's tennis courts, which few residents seem to use.
Residents say they will pack a meeting Thursday at which the board is expected to discuss the divisive issue. Mutunhu and others say they want the board to rescind the policy.
"They need to undo what they've done to this community," she said. "It's just not right."