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CHARLOTTE, NC (WBTV) - Caffeine and conversation draws a steady crowd to the Starbucks on East Boulevard in Charlotte's Dilworth neighborhood. The coffee shop also draws a lot of tow trucks.
"I've seen them come in here and get people," said one customer after carefully parking in a space designated for Starbucks customers.
The parking lot behind Starbucks is owned by Key Man Building. It leases 12 spaces to Starbucks. The rest of the lot's spaces are intended for Key Man tenants. Anyone who parks in those spaces without permission, faces the risk of getting towed.
Key Man has hired United Towing to enforce the lot.
"They're illegally parked," said the tow truck driver as he hooked up to a car. "Can't you see the sign right there?"
There are signs. Lots of signs, with a lot to read. Some customers say it all gets very confusing. The bottom line is a lot of cars are being towed or booted.
All of the tows have to be called into the city, so police know the car wasn't stolen. A check of city records shows United Towing pulled 269 cars out of the lot in the past 90 days. It's a nice revenue stream because at $120 per tow that's more $32,000 in just three months.
It's led to a lot of complaints and questions as to whether what's going on is legal.
Cars are towed within minutes of parking, but the tow truck doesn't always go far. Sometimes the truck goes up one block and turns on Fillmore Avenue. WBTV cameras show the driver leaving the tow truck in the driving lane right under a no parking sign. The driver went back to remove a boot on another car in the lot.
It wasn't the first time it happened. If you go to Google Maps "street-view" you'll see two United Towing trucks parked in the same area.
"We got a concerned citizen telling us that our car was being towed," said Agee.
He rushed to his vehicle and got to it before it was moved out. The timing is important because Charlotte's towing ordinance says a tow truck company cannot charge "if the person arrives at the scene prior to towing."
United Towing still charged Agee $50.
"This is a drop fee," said the driver. "Because it's on the parking lot and it's actually hooked to my truck."
We talked to three attorneys with the city of Charlotte. All say the city ordinance does not allow for drop fees.
"It's a bum deal," said Agee. "The car wasn't moved out of the spot. They had just started to hook it up when I came out."
Anyone who feels they were charged in violation of city ordinance can file a complaint with the city. The ordinance calls for a fine of up to $100 for a violation.
The manager of the Key Man building says she is protective of the parking spaces because when all of the office spaces are leased the parking lot fills up. Christina Iannarino also says her company makes no money off the towing.
United Towing did not return our calls for comment about their charging of drop fees.