King of a Small Empire

George King’s empire isn’t much.

It’s a handful of tow trucks, one employee, a dirt lot and a flimsy shed. A couple of impounded cars rest in the lot, waiting to be claimed.

In the shed, the owner of George’s Towing & Recovery reclines in a huge office chair, weathered hands clasped, presiding over two 55-inch screens.

He scans grainy footage of Chapel Hill parking lots, waiting for someone to park where they’re not supposed to. And when they do, he or his employee heads over, double-checks the infraction with on-site video, hooks up the offending car and hauls it off. That’ll be $180, cash.

The state of towing in Chapel Hill is intense. Faced with limited downtown parking, property owners want their lots open for customers, so they hire companies such as King’s to oversee and tow from their lots.

The job is a contentious one. The Chapel Hill Police Department receives at least one or two complaints about towing per week. And in the past few years, the situation has grown divisive. Towing companies are regularly described as “predatory” and “aggressive” in town meetings, and a strengthening of Chapel Hill’s 11-year-old towing ordinance in 2012 set off a series of lawsuits, injunctions and appeals. The ordinance now sits in front of the N.C. Supreme Court, which agreed Nov. 8 to hear the case involving it.

In the meantime, towing is unregulated in Chapel Hill. King, who challenged the town’s towing rules,
said he’s just doing his job.

But Chapel Hill Mayor Mark Kleinschmidt called King’s kind of towing predatory.

“There’s no doubt,” he said. “When a tow truck is sitting there or cameras are watching you and they come within minutes of you walking away, I don’t know how else to describe it than predatory.”

Chapel Hill’s towing problem begins with parking.

Public spaces downtown are limited. When they fill, parking in a business’ private lot — for free — becomes an attractive option. So people park there, either ignoring or ignorant of the posted warnings, and join the throngs meandering along Chapel Hill’s main street.

But businesses want their lots open for customers.

“We’ve developed a culture where those businesses and landlords have engaged with towing companies to keep the lot clear of those who aren’t coming to visit their business,” Kleinschmidt said. “There has to be a balance.”

King’s lawyer is a jowly man named Tom Stark. He’s quick to call any concept of predatory parking a construct. He believes the town’s policy is to underpark downtown, encouraging pedestrians and bus ridership.

“It backfires in that it creates this intense towing issue, and that’s a choice the town makes,” he said. “But it’s a guy like George that bears the brunt of the pressure.”

In the front of King’s truck sits a crumpled Hardee’s bag.

“I try to avoid fast food,” he said, holding up the bag and laughing. “Turkey burger. Those things aren’t fattening.”

King’s a big guy, more than 6 feet tall with a sagging belly. His eyes are bright and kind, a watery shade of cornflower blue. His hair is a soft white. There’s dirt caked under his fingernails and a deodorant smudge on his black shirt.

When he laughs, his straight white teeth gleam. He looks younger than 63.

King loves his job, every bit of it. He takes pride in owning a business. He believes in responsibility. He likes that, in good times, towing pays.

“It’s a satisfaction of being able to do a job and doing it well,” he said.

He wasn’t always so straight-laced.

“I was a little bit wild and rambunctious, I guess, to the extent that I quit in 11th grade,” he said. But he’s proud to add that he earned a GED certificate 20 years later.

After quitting school, King worked for a roofing company. Making the switch to towing came when his truck broke down and, much like a girl in the mall recruited for modeling, King got an offer.

“Evidently the towing guy must have saw, course, I’m a bigger guy. He asked me if I’ve considered towing,” King said.

He worked for Talbert’s Towing in the Chapel Hill area for a year until he bought a tow truck of his own. When the boss found out King intended to use it on his own one day, King was fired. For six months he had no towing work.

Eventually, though, the gears began to turn, and contracts started coming in.

Now, more than a decade later, George’s Towing & Recovery oversees about a dozen of Chapel Hill’s busiest lots, from Panera Bread to The Daily Tar Heel.

Kevin Schwartz, general manager of the DTH, was quick to praise King’s work.

“If it wasn’t for George, we’d never have a place to park,” Schwartz said. “Ninety-eight percent of the people who get towed knew they shouldn’t have been parking there in the first place. It’s that simple.”

Somewhere along the way, King became a key player in the town’s towing debate.

“It’s exciting to me to know that one person can stand up and make a difference,” he said.

Chapel Hill passed its first towing ordinance in 2002, but complaints about aggressive towing — and several altercations requiring police intervention — led the town to crack down on towing again in 2008. Fees were capped at $100 per tow, and the police department required companies to report tow details within 30 minutes of a tow.

King protested the ordinance changes then, speaking at Town Council meetings and speaking with police officials. He wrote a long letter to town officials, insisting that a price cap would slash his profit margins and threaten his business, which has high operating costs: tow trucks are expensive and require extensive maintenance.

In 2012, the town amended the ordinance again, increasing signage requirements, requiring reportage of tow details prior to removing a vehicle, requiring credit card acceptance and more. The maximum tow fee was increased from $100 to $125.

King and his attorney filed a lawsuit against the town, arguing that the ordinance — along with a ban on cellphone use while driving — was unconstitutional under state law and put his business in peril.

The ordinance went into effect on May 1, 2012 — and was blocked by Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson via a temporary injunction a day later.

Three months later, Hudson issued a permanent injunction ruling the towing ordinance an unconstitutional attempt to regulate trade.

The Town Council voted to appeal Hudson’s ruling, which brought the legal dispute before the state Court of Appeals. The court ruled that the ordinance was within the town’s authority as part of its right to protect the safety and welfare of the public.

But Stark, not willing to let the case drop, filed a petition for discretionary review with the Supreme Court, which agreed to review both controversial laws.

Among other arguments, Stark contends that the “police power” the town is leaning on — which allows a town to adopt rules that protect the health, safety and welfare of a community — hasn’t historically been used for a broad application of law. Instead, that state law has been used to prohibit brothels and other sex-related businesses, Stark said.

“Here the Town of Chapel Hill attempted to stretch the reach of their delegated police powers too far,” Stark wrote in court documents filed in King’s complaint. “The town’s attempt to regulate towing has gone beyond protecting the health, safety and welfare of the public. The business of towing is not akin to brothels, massage parlor, and the like: It is not inherently morally culpable or repugnant.”

King referred comments about the case to his attorney.

“It’s very exciting. It’s encouraging,” Stark said. “We’re very confident about our arguments.”

Though he didn’t anticipate the Supreme Court’s decision to hear the case, its ruling will provide a valuable, definite legal opinion about towing, said Chapel Hill Town Councilman Lee Storrow.

“I am confident that we have the superior legal argument and have the authority to regulate towing,” he said.

Kleinschmidt believes the town will win. But he knows a loss could have implications beyond Chapel Hill.

“Sometimes people say, ‘Look at Chapel Hill with your little towing ordinance problem,’” he said. “But if our ordinance goes down, all these communities in North Carolina will lose their ability to tow from private lots. It could make other ordinances go out the window as well,” Kleinschmidt said.

King said he doesn’t have time for hobbies. But if he weren’t working all the time, he’d be with his family.

“I would go and spend every weekend with my son and fiancée,” he said. “He’s the love of my life, him and my girl.”

King lives alone. His fiancée of 11 years, Sharon, lives in Wilmington. Neither wanted the other to give up their job, but she’ll be moving here upon retirement soon enough. They have a 6-year-old son, Kadin Achilles King. King has two sons from a previous marriage (“a bad situation”), one “43 or so,” the other “39 or 40, I don’t know.”

Though King is friendly, he’s reserved — except when he talks about Kadin.

One September weekend, King and Sharon and Kadin went to Medieval Times, the hokey tourist attraction at which people eat hunks of meat and watch costumed knights joust each other. Kadin loved it, even though their knight died first. “We still hollered and screamed,” King said. Another weekend, King took Kadin on a helicopter ride above Myrtle Beach, S.C.

“He has just been a blessing in our lives,” King said. “He keeps me going… We just live it up on the weekends.”

Most people who complain aren’t frustrated about being towed so much as they’re frustrated with their experience, Storrow said.

“Asking a citizen to get $200 in cash from an ATM, perhaps late at night, and asking them to drive miles and miles away from downtown Chapel Hill and deal with an unpleasant person – those are the things that really impact citizens,” he said.

Flora Parrish, records supervisor at the Chapel Hill Police Department, handles complaints about towing.

The most common complaints regard overcharging and improper signage, Parrish said.

From May 2, 2012, when the ordinance was put on hold, until Sept. 19, 2013, when police records were requested, the police department received 47 documented complaints about towing. Those don’t include the informal complaints Parrish said she receives weekly on the phone. Since Aug 10, 2012, the department has taken six police reports regarding towing disputes.

King’s business received the vast majority of recorded complaints. Of the complaints since August 2012, King’s company was the subject of 75 percent.

Storrow worries that towing could affect tourism.

“I do think there are some people, as they come to downtown Chapel Hill and get their car towed, that it makes them less likely to come in the future,” Storrow said.

“If I went to dinner at Vespa [Ristorante], for a family of four, I might spend $100 on food and wine, and then I might want to walk a couple blocks for ice cream,” Storrow said. “It’s pretty disappointing that I might be towed after really supporting their business.”

Kleinschmidt said the ordinance addresses basic concerns about towing, such as “crazy” cash-only policies.

“How much cash do you really keep on yourself at one time?” he said. “Cash is going the way of the VHS tape and the CD. If you can go to the farmers market and buy grape tomatoes with your debit card, why can’t these companies, with the revenue they make, why can’t they invest in a little square for their iPad and do it that way?”

King said his business will soon expand from cash-only.

“We’re in the process of getting this square thing that goes on your phone or whatever to take cards,” he said. But having an ATM is too risky, he said.

“It just leaves it wide open, if you put an ATM out there, for someone to back up, hook up to it and snatch it out of the wall,” he said.

King’s lawyer believes some of the towing complaints weren’t actually complaints, but political mechanisms.

“Some of them were orchestrated by a few individuals so they artificially raised the level of the intensity of the debate for their own purposes,” Stark said.

Does he know who’s behind those? “Maybe,” he said, laughing and moving on. The police department said the complaints they’ve received have not been falsified.

Jacob Morse and his friend were splitting a large pizza, half chicken and half steak, on Mellow Mushroom’s patio one warm September night.

Then Morse, who is student body vice president at UNC-CH, saw someone fiddling with his car, which was parked facing the restaurant. He ran outside.

King’s employee was preparing to tow the car, having seen Morse head to Mellow Mushroom instead of Cholanad, which has rights to the lot.

“The towing guy wanted to give as little explanation as possible, and when I said, ‘This is ridiculous,’ his responses were sarcastic, like, ‘I think it’s ridiculous that you didn’t bother to see where you were parking,” Morse said.

Morse walked to an ATM on Rosemary Street, withdrawing $125 to pay the booting fee. He said the signs were inadequate.

“My waitress apologized and said, ‘Yeah, many a night has been ruined here,’” he said. “As a student, $125 is pretty steep. That’s a whole lot of hourly wages right there.”

George’s Towing & Recovery is one of many local towing companies, including Barnes Towing and Talbert’s Towing. The owner of Talbert’s Towing declined to comment, and the owner of Barnes Towing could not be reached. Only a few other companies use camera systems to track the lots they tow.

King had the idea to install cameras almost a decade ago.

“It seemed like the people who screamed the loudest were the ones that everybody wanted to believe,” he said. “We didn’t put cameras in to spy on people. … We put cameras in to verify, and to protect the property owner that we were doing business with from someone saying, ‘No I didn’t,’ and we say, ‘Oh yes you did.’”

Three or four years ago, he began to install them in local lots. He said the camera system has helped the police department many times. Police spokesman Lt. Kevin Gunter said King has allowed officers to access surveillance footage in multiple criminal investigations, including in cases of an assault and a hit-and-run. But where King sees cameras as a tool for verification, others see hostility.

The West Franklin Street parking lot between Noodles & Co. and Vespa Ristorante was once a towing hotbed.

George’s Towing & Recovery used to oversee towing from the lot. But lot owner Westside Limited Partnership severed that relationship about a year ago.

“That relationship did not work out,” said Jeff Boak, a co-owner of the partnership. “[King’s] idea was to have cameras so we can tow more people. Our idea was to have cameras so we can tow less people.”

Boak said Westside Limited Partnership moved its towing contract back to Barnes Towing, which it used before contracting with King’s company. Boak said he was unhappy with King’s constant surveillance and aggressive towing.

“It wasn’t worth it for our tenants and customers,” he said.

But King said the contract ended because Boak’s demands became too much to handle. At first, Boak allowed unlimited towing from the lot. Then he created specific time constraints and a burdensome verification system for tows, King said. At that point, it became too difficult for King to make a profit, and Boak switched back to Barnes.

Business managers that share the Vespa Ristorante parking lot were blank when asked about towing incidents there. The manager at Famous Hair said she has never once heard of a towing complaint. A woman at Nail Trix said the same. The host at Vespa Ristorante just shook his head and motioned toward the door, refusing access to the manager. A manager at Noodles said she didn’t know anything.

Yet the TripAdvisor page for Vespa Ristorante is full of caps-lock warnings about towing and its high price.

“This is a towing operation, not a restaurant,” reads one. “Police don’t care, so stay away!!!!!!” another says.

Kevin Harrish, an employee at The Bicycle Chain on Franklin Street, said he’s familiar with the issue.

“I used to see altercations out there on a daily basis, but that’s kind of decreased in the last six months,” he said.

He said he’d see people fighting with the towing company, screaming or sobbing, trying to bargain or even getting physical.

Harrish laughed when asked if he’d heard of George King.

“He’s a very intense man,” Harrish said. “That’s all I’ll say.”

The neighboring town of Carrboro, which also has limited parking, is grappling with a similar towing issue. Carrboro Alderman Damon Seils said towing can be aggressive at times.

“I don’t want to pretend it’s not an issue,” he said. “We’ve all witnessed it happening.”

The town has had its current ordinance in place since 2011. It caps tow fees at $100, mandates the acceptance of credit and debit cards and more. Towing enforcement has recently increased at Carr Mill Mall, which has frustrated some local business owners, residents and officials. There have been multiple complaints filed against multiple towing companies in town.

Seils said the town is working on tweaking the ordinance to make it clearer. Mayor Mark Chilton said town staff is in conversation with local towing companies to discuss the fairness of price caps, which many tow operators believe are too low. Signage requirements are also up for consideration, he said.

King’s lot is five and a half miles out in the country. A chain-link fence topped with barbed wire surrounds a dirt and grass lot. The front gate is padlocked shut. Behind the gate is a wood shack: King’s small shed-turned-office. Security cameras on the building keep watch.

A grill and a lawnmower sit at the ready amid piles of tools and junk outside, including a box for a “Big & Tall” chair, certified for up to 350 pounds. A rusty horse trailer and some old cars rest in the far corners, one Honda never retrieved by its owner. Three cars are impounded now, but King said he’ll sometimes get as many as 15.

If the ordinance is reinstated, King said he’ll stay in business as long as he can, and if he can’t, he’ll figure out something else.

“It will make a tremendous impact on me,” he said. “If I can’t keep my trucks up and running and so forth, then I won’t be able to be in business.”

But King maintains his optimism about the future, just as he maintains his optimism that the people he tows will understand.

“I always say to them, ‘Hey, if you see me on the street tomorrow, throw up your hand and wave, and I’ll wave back at you,’” he said.

“I’m still a person, I’m still your friend; I’m just doing my job. That’s all.”