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Sen. Deanna Ballard, whose district includes the state’s northwestern corner, has proposed a statewide law that would prevent local governments from regulating the towing and booting of cars on private property, an issue that’s drawn substantial controversy in several towns, especially Boone.
James Cooke is a felon who has served nearly a decade in prison throughout his life for convictions for theft, drug possession, breaking and entering, forgery and driving while impaired.
He was also working as a parking lot attendant in Boone for LMS Parking in 2014 when he was accused of assaulting a local lawyer who came to the aid of a tourist whose car had been booted. Cooke’s arrest was just one incident in a string of mishaps surrounding parking in downtown Boone, where tourism and college students largely drive the local economy. In a small college city with a vibrant downtown area, like Boone, finding a parking spot can be a difficult, if not impossible, task.
The incident with Cooke, and other complaints related to booting in the downtown area, led the Boone city council to update its ordinances to include several consumer protections related to parking. Parking attendants are required to wear a city-issued I.D. badge, have a clean criminal record and accept several forms of payment, among other stipulations.
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A bill currently making its way through the North Carolina General Assembly, sponsored by Sen. Ballard (R-Alleghany, Ashe, Avery, Caldwell, Watauga) and Sen. Danny Britt Jr. (R-Columbus, Robeson), would create a single state law regulating “the use of immobilization devices on vehicles unlawfully parked in privately owned or leased parking lots.” The law would also forbid local governments from passing ordinances that regulate private parking lots, meaning that Boone’s prohibition against convicted felons policing parks lots would be wiped from the books.
The towing and booting companies in Boone have been publicly supportive of the bill, according to various media reports out of Watauga County. Ballard said in an email that the law is designed to standardize parking regulations across the state, rather than forcing towing companies to adapt to a patchwork of local laws.
“Municipalities in North Carolina have varied greatly in the manner in which they regulated the use of car immobilization devices for cars that were illegally parked,” Ballard said. “These various regulations have made it hard for companies to navigate the different red tape set forth by each city hall. There are at least 14 different municipalities that regulate this activity and they all vary. One municipality has even changed their signage requirements three times in three years, making the companies engaged in this business buy new signs each time. I think this bill will help businesses and citizens know exactly what the law is concerning the use of car immobilization devices.”
Boone Town Manager John Ward sent a letter to the Town Council about the bill, saying it would “make it unlawful for any jurisdiction in the state to pass an ordinance protecting citizens and visitors from unscrupulous business practices and from being taken advantage of” and that “all of the protections that have been written into the local ordinance and that are a result of citizen/visitor experiences with local towing companies would be deleted.”
Ballard said the language in the bill hasn’t been finalized, and that more robust consumer protections could be added to the bill, which was first filed on March 29 and is currently in a Senate committee.
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“I’ve spoken to John Ward about his concerns and have asked for he and the Boone Town Council’s input – I even spoke to him about the bill prior to filing,” Ballard said.
“He and I have good dialogue and will continue to consider language regarding consumer protection, such as requiring booting companies to accept multiple forms of payment. As a point of reference, I have spoken to other town councils and town managers who are supportive of the bill and having statewide standards.”
Parking lot attendants in Boone, some of whom were paid on a commission basis, were accused during City Council meetings of engaging in predatory behavior to catch people parking, both purposefully and unwittingly, in private parking lots.
Many of the complaints centered on a parking lot at the intersection of King Street and Water Street, though the company that is contracted to police that parking lot, LMS Parking, has dozens of other clients in the area.
Ward and Boone Police Chief Dana Crawford did not respond to requests for comment prior to publication of this article.