Towed cars leave some Northampton marchers fuming

  • Fourteen vehicles parked in this lot at Greg's Auto Repair, off Riverside Drive in Northampton, were towed Saturday, at the same time as the March for Our Lives. Though some vehicle owners saw a political motivation behind the removal of their cars, owner Jeff Tenczar said that wasn't the case. GAZETTE STAFF/DUSTY CHRISTENSEN

Published: 3/26/2018 8:49:33 PM

NORTHAMPTON — While some protesters were marching up Elm Street on Saturday, their cars were being marched down King Street.

That was the scene when a local business, Greg’s Auto Repair, had 14 cars towed from its lot, which the owner said was overflowing with unauthorized vehicles that were impeding business.

“Full to where you couldn’t even drive in it,” was how owner Jeff Tenczar described the parking lot across from his shop, where even on weekends he said customers and towing companies drop off cars needing service, and where he rents two spots to a taxi company.

Those who came back to find their cars gone didn’t take kindly to the towing. Many of them were parking there, across from Northampton High School, to attend the March for our Lives, during which thousands came out to protest gun violence. Student organizer Ben Moss-Horwitz interrupted his speech to let people know their cars were being towed.

The kerfuffle that resulted followed a familiar script for viral outrage: the upset vehicle owners and their supporters took to the internet, where they left one-star reviews for Greg’s Auto Repair on the website Yelp and on Google reviews, some of which suggested that he had their cars towed as political retribution for protesting.

“Why support a business that so abhors free speech and, apparently, condones the slaughter of school children?” read one Google review written by Leslie Hoffman. Several of the car owners called the Gazette to express their anger.

The owner of Greg’s, however, told the Gazette that he had no political motivation whatsoever.

“I was aware of nothing going on on Saturday. I didn’t know the situation that there was a march or anything like that,” Tenczar said Monday. He said he himself has children in the city’s schools, but working 12-hour days he said he didn’t hear about the protest. “I’m all for the protection of our children.”

Tenczar said he has never seen his parking lot so busy. He said he has in the past tolerated the handful of cars that have parked there for high school sporting events, but Saturday’s crowd was too large.

“It makes me feel bad — I don’t want to upset anybody,” Tenczar said, adding that he doesn’t ever want to tow cars but felt he had to when several rows of vehicles piled up on Saturday. “I don’t get anything but headaches for having cars towed.”

Greg’s Auto Repair isn’t the first local business to draw ire over a political stance, whether real or perceived. Dave Ratner, the owner of Dave’s Soda and Pet City, suffered blowback in October when he was one of nearly two dozen people photographed standing around President Donald Trump as he signed an executive order that many saw as a naked attempt to sabotage the Affordable Care Act.

One of the cars towed Saturday belonged to Northampton’s Leigh Dunlap, who said paying $186 to get her car back would be a significant financial setback, given her only income is from disability.

“It leaves me with nothing,” she said, describing the towing as a “mean spirited” and unnecessary act.

Dunlap said she wants to recoup the towing costs in small claims court, and hopes the fact that no signs were posted can help her win. She referenced Chapter 266, Section 120D of the state’s General Laws, which says a vehicle shouldn’t be removed from private property “unless the operator of such vehicle has been forbidden so to park or stand, either directly or by posted notice, by the person who has lawful control of such way or property.”

Tenczar said he had purchased private parking signs, but hadn’t posted them until Sunday, the day after this latest incident. Signs reading “Parking for Greg’s Auto Repair only” with an accompanying tow warning were visible when the Gazette visited the lot on Monday.

Dunlap said that, had there just been signs posted, she would have never parked in a private lot. It’s just not something she does.

“I’ll drive around the block relentlessly,” she said of her usual search for a legal parking spot. She said that when she parked at Greg’s, she told her daughter to carefully position her car so as to not block others. Already, she said, the lot was full.

Despite the lack of signs, the company that towed the 14 cars said they and Greg’s Auto Repair were entirely within their legal rights to remove the cars from private property.

“It’s private property — you cannot park there,” said Brett Pietraszkiewicz, the operations manager at Ernie’s Towing. He likened Saturday’s situation to someone leaving their car in a stranger’s driveway. “Although his businesses were closed, his lots were open for his customers.”

Ernie’s Towing patrols lots for hundreds of clients, and frequently tows cars from private property, Pietraszkiewicz said.

It’s Pietraszkiewicz’s job to oversee any legal challenges to his towing company’s practices, and he said that of the “thousands and thousands” of cars they’ve towed in his nine years with Ernie’s, “we’ve only given back a handful.”

The next part of that law Dunlap cited states that “no vehicle shall be removed… without the consent of the owner of such vehicle unless the person who has lawful control of such way or property shall have notified the chief of police or his designee in a city or town.”

Pietraszkiewicz said Ernie’s Towing has a person whose job is to fax the Police Department such notification. Police logs from Saturday indicate they were informed at 2:03 p.m. of the towing, and Tenczar said he called the police himself to ask advice before giving the order to tow.

Despite the company’s stance that it is firmly within the law in towing the vehicles, some of the vehicle owners have allegedly taken matters into their own hands. Pietraszkiewicz said two of the towed vehicles were taken out of Ernie’s lot and that they are working with the police to potentially press trespassing and larceny charges against the suspects.

As for those imputing political machinations to Tenczar, Dunlap acknowledged that her first reaction was to wonder whether he was against the march’s message.

As for others who went to social media with those claims, she said that probably wasn’t a good idea.

“I know that is the beast that is the internet and social media, she said. “We leap to the absolute worst we can find.”

Dunlap said those who had their cars towed have been in contact over email, and that she awaits her day in small claims court when she hopes to challenge what she sees as an unfair burden and financial difficulty.

“I can’t afford that bite out of me,” she said of the towing fees.

Dusty Christensen can be reached at dchristensen@gazettenet.com.
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