Florida Keys News
Wednesday, February 5, 2014
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Towing again under fire

ISLAMORADA -- Councilman Mike Forster plans to push for tougher towing regulation and oversight within village boundaries following an incident that occurred in late January outside a Plantation Key shopping complex that he partially owns.

"There's got to be some checks and balances here," Forster said in an interview last week.

His anger stems from Jan. 26, when Guy's Towing hooked the vehicles of five customers at the Rain Barrel Artisan's Gallery, mile marker 86.7, bayside.

Forster says he never hired Guy's, nor authorized the company to post tow zone signs on his property.

Guy's, which is based in Key Largo, is one of just two wrecking companies registered to tow vehicles under an ordinance Islamorada passed in 2012. The imposition of that towing law was spearheaded by then-Councilman Don Achenberg shortly after the Free Press published articles about Guy's business practices, which, among other issues, included routine tow fees of around $500 and a cash-only policy.

In an interview Monday, Guy's attorney Bernadette Restivo said her client was hired by property owners on Gimpy Gulch, the narrow road that can only be accessed by driving past the north edge of the Rain Barrel. The company and owner Jimmy Aurelio, she said, now find themselves in the middle of a property dispute between the Gimpy Gulch residents and the Rain Barrel.

"What we concern ourselves with is that [Jimmy] fulfills his contractual obligations with the businesses that hire him, whether or not they have a dispute with their neighbor," Restivo said Monday in a phone interview that also included Aurelio.

Forster dismissed that argument, saying the area where the towing took place straddles the line between the Rain Barrel property and a roadway owned by the village of Islamorada. The start of Gimpy Gulch, delineated by landscaping that divides it from the public road, as well as a private property sign, is beyond the Rain Barrel lot, to the bayside of the towing sites.

"How they would ever deem it to be Gimpy Gulch's property would be beyond me," Forster said.

Still, he acknowledged that parking at the Rain Barrel does sometimes spill into the public roadway. That's a problem, Forster conceded, but he said the vehicles have never blocked access to Gimpy Gulch.

Not so, said Gimpy Gulch resident James Cooper. Cooper was the homeowner who called Guy's on the weekend of Jan. 26, he said, and he also said he put up the more westerly of the two Guy's tow zone signs that were posted at or near the Rain Barrel. Parking can sometimes extend so far into the roadway, Cooper said, that it blocks access for the mail carrier and would be a problem should a fire truck need to get through.

Village Public Works Director John Sutter agreed that the Gimpy Gulch residents have legitimate cause for concern. The village plans to post no parking signs along the Rain Barrel side of the public street. The town already has signs on the northern side of the roadway, bordering Founders Park.

Still, the question over Guy's right to tow from the Rain Barrel is just one of Foster's complaints. He's also concerned about the company's tactics.

When Bill and Barbara Gurican of Punta Gorda came out of the Rain Barrel shops on Jan. 26 their vehicle had been hooked but not yet hauled. During the hook up Guy's had punched a hole in the Guricans' minivan.

Despite the damage, the Guy's crew refused to release the car until the Guricans paid a $200 fee. Bill Gurican says that when he told the wrecker's driver that the company will have to pay for the damage, he received no response. The incident was witnessed by Monroe County Sheriff's Office deputies, whom, he said, didn't intercede.

Islamorada's sheriff's Capt. Corey Bryan called the issue a "civil problem" in an interview last week.

But Gurican left the scene disgusted. The next day he accused the sheriff's office, Guy's and the Rain Barrel of being in cahoots on a Trip Advisor posting.

By then, Forster had gotten involved. Emails reviewed by the Free Press show that he threatened to sue Guy's if the company didn't refund the Guricans and pay for the damage.

Aurelio's daughter Rochelle, who exchanged emails with Forster, eventually agreed. The company cut the Guricans a $967 check for the damage on Monday, they said. Rochelle Aurelio also agreed to take down the Guy's signs.

Forster said he plans to suggest that the Village Council consider setting a tighter limit on how much towing operators can charge and that more resources be dedicated to overseeing the law.

The village's current ordinance allows haulers to charge a maximum base fee of $135. They can bill an additional $135 per hour for labor. Companies can charge $3 per mile for the haul and they can also bill for storage, administration and after-hours pick-up. Cindy Dudley, who works at the Rain Barrel, claims the company charged $500 to the owner of one vehicle towed on Jan. 26.

The Free Press could not verify that figure, but it is consistent with Guy's bills the Free Press reviewed in 2012, shortly before the village adopted the towing ordinance.

The Key West towing ordinance, in contrast, caps the cost of a tow at $155, plus a $25 per day storage fee.

Aurelio on Monday said he bills within the parameters of the village ordinance. He complained the village hasn't cracked down on haulers that haven't registered under the law and paid the annual $100 fee.

rsilk@keysnews.com

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