UPPER KEYS -- Over the past several years, the gravel lot at the front of the long-shuttered Papa Joe's Marina property has become a popular parking area for fishermen and others recreating at the adjacent Tea Table Fill, as well as for Bud N' Mary's Marina customers who can't find a space across the highway.
But a recent decision by property owner Cap'n Wells LLP to keep cars off the lot has led to a series of complaints against the Key Largo-based towing outfit the company has hired.
As a result, County Commissioner Sylvia Murphy is considering a call for stricter towing regulations in county controlled areas, with an eye toward a move made by the city of Key West last November.
"It's way out of line," Murphy said of the practices of Guy's Towing, the company at the center of the Papa Joe's towing controversy.
Complaints and records reviewed by the Free Press show that Guy's has been charging $500 and more to the owner or renter of cars it has towed from Papa Joe's Marina.
No law in either Islamorada or unincorporated Monroe County regulates what towing operators can charge for removing vehicles from private properties. But Guy's fees are higher than the maximum the county and the Monroe County Sheriff's Office allows to be billed when vehicles are moved from public property, such as the Florida Department of Transportation right-of-way.
The Upper Keys' two other towing operators say a bill of $500 for a routine tow is well above the norm.
"That's ridiculous," said Mark Wheaton, owner of Wheaton's Service Center in Key Largo.
"Five hundred dollars to tow a freaking car?" questioned Jerry Norman, owner of All American Towing Tire in Key Largo.
In an interview last Friday, Guy's owner Jimmy Aurelio dismissed the comments from his competitors.
"They say those things because it's a cutthroat business," he said.
Meanwhile, Aurelio's daughter and employee Rachele Aurelio said the company provides an important service not only to Papa Joe's but to its other private clients.
"We are private property advocates," she said. "We believe people have that right."
Still, the cost, as well as other practices employed by Guy's, such as requiring cash-only payments, has Murphy concerned.
The Upper Keys aren't the first region in Monroe County to deal with complaints about tow operators.
It was in response to tows billed for as much as $400 that the Key West City Commission passed an ordinance last year capping the cost at $155, plus a $25 daily storage fee if vehicles are held for longer than six hours. Towing companies are also forbidden from imposing a cash-only policy.
Just last month, Marathon passed a towing ordinance, this time in response to complaints about towing practices on the property of the shuttered restaurant called The Quay. The law there requires towing operators to register with the city and to submit a list of the private properties it will post with tow warnings, but doesn't establish any rules relating to rates.
In the Upper Keys, criticism of Guy's isn't universal. Islamorada Sheriff's Office Capt. Corey Bryan acknowledged the situation at Papa Joe's has blown up in the past few weeks. But he put the onus on those drivers who park their vehicles illegally, despite the numerous tow-away zone signs that Guy's has placed on the property.
"If it's posted, you have to be willing to take that chance," Bryan said.
Meanwhile, Cap'n Wells LLP has also complained about the parking situation to FDOT, since the front edge of the Papa Joe's gravel lot is on the state right-of-way, FDOT spokesman Brian Rick wrote in an email to the Free Press.
In response, the transportation department is considering installing "no parking anytime" signs on the site, but would likely enforce the rule by ticketing, not towing.
FDOT's biggest concern, Rick wrote, is for pedestrians who park in their portion of the lot and then cross the Overseas Highway, typically to go to Bud N' Mary's.
When it comes to Guy's, though, some who have been towed from Papa Joe's remain irate, not just about the fees, but about what they say are the company's practices.
Keith Moyer of North Carolina was charged $510 by Guy's after the company towed his vehicle in early May while he was on a fishing trip.
The bill included a $120 towing fee, which is commensurate with the Sheriff's Office rates for the 40-mile round-trip from Guy's mile marker 99.3 locale. But the hook-up charge at $185 was $50 higher than the maximum Sheriff's Office rate. The company also charged $150 for labor and a $30 storage fee. Aside from the rates, Moyer complained that Guy's initially told him he couldn't retrieve the car at all, because it was a rental.
Miami-Dade resident Timothy Doll has also recently voiced his anger about Guy's to Murphy. So has Adalberto Sanchez, another Miami-Dade resident, who was charged $580 for a Guy's towing in mid May, court records show. Rather than pay Guy's directly, Sanchez exercised his option to file a small claims court case and to secure the release of his car by posting bond with the Monroe County Clerk of the Courts.
However, on May 18 County Judge Reagan Ptomey ordered the bond turned over to Guy's.
Doll said he was appalled in early April when he saw a Guy's tow operator hook up a car being driven by two French tourists who had stopped at Tea Table Fill for just 10 or so minutes to take in the sunset. The couple, he said, didn't speak English, so he stepped in to help.
Though state law requires towing operators to offer to release a car if the drivers arrive during the hook-up for a maximum of half the rate, Doll said the French couple received no such offer.
Rachele Aurelio, last week, disputed that assertion, saying that Guy's always offers to drop the car for $200.
Nevertheless, with all the animosity that the Papa Joe's contract has stirred, her dad Jimmy said he's ready to make some concessions. Guy's is reducing its hook-up charge from $185 to the sheriff's guidelines of $135, he said, and will consider providing leeway on the $75 after-hours retrieval charge, known as a gate fee, provided people are polite.
As for the labor charge, Jimmy said it applies only from the time a truck arrives at Papa Joe's or another tow site until it leaves. Labor is not charged for transit time, or as Rachele had previously told the Free Press, for clean-up of trash left at the towing locale.
The towing business, said Jimmy, is a tough one that is bound to leave people upset.
"I'm willing to try to work with the people wherever I could," he said.