Towing on Miami Beach: It's Complicated

Susan Askew
Susan Askew

Towing on Miami Beach: It's Complicated:

Commission approves one year contracts for beach and tremont towing, seeks better solutions

It started out as a simple item on the consent agenda at last week's Commission meeting for three-year contracts with the two companies that service the City of Miami Beach’s towing needs, Beach Towing and Tremont Towing. The consent agenda is a group of items that get approved together unless a Commissioner pulls one for individual discussion.
 
In this case, Mayor Dan Gelber pulled the item, saying he would only support one year renewals at this time. Gelber, newly elected in November, said he researched the towing issue historically in Miami Beach. Since 2006, he said, the City has basically renewed the same contract. “When we implemented this, there was a lot of policy decided that we wanted the Sunset Harbour area to be where the two companies would be,” he noted.
 
“When I think about Sunset Harbour today versus what it was when this was first created, it’s an entirely different community,” Gelber continued. “It’s no longer commercial with a lot of car repair and things like that. It’s residential and a bit of entertainment and almost nothing else other than this little industrial area that’s there.”
 
By approving a three-year agreement, Gelber said, the City will have been doing the same thing for almost 15 years “without ever going through any other process. I think a lot has changed in that community and I think we ought to at least do an analysis. If we decide we don’t want to change anything we can always renew again but …  I think we can renew for a year without a problem.”
 
The sponsor of the measure, Commissioner John Alemán said, “First of all, nobody likes to get towed. And for sure there’s a lot of anger for many of us residents when we think about towing because, you know, we’ve probably all been on the other side of the window at one point or another but I don’t think any of us upon further thought would argue the towing service is a complete necessity. We have residential parking permits that need to be protected that residents really rely on to be able to get to their homes; we have freight loading zones that have to be kept clear not to mention, of course, emergency services.”
 
The issue gets complicated by the small size of the island and availability of industrial space. “The conversation about Sunset Harbour is very interesting,” Alemán said.  “We do not have very many industrial zones in Miami Beach. We have this one in Sunset Harbour which is very small and we have Terminal Island and that’s it.” She noted that as developers make proposals for using Terminal Island, “We should remember this conflict now that has been created in Sunset Harbour where the industrial zone that was there first is possibly getting pushed out by resident complaints when the residents who bought there knew that there was an industrial zone there when they purchased, so I think that’s really important for us as the Commissioners to think about and be aware of.”
 
“There’s only a couple of places where vehicles can be stored on-island in Miami Beach,” she continued. “My personal belief is that it’s vital to our residents and to our visitors that when they do get towed that there is on-island storage … Being towed is already a very unpleasant experience. It’s certainly expensive. It’s disruptive to your day. If you had to go over to Miami to retrieve your vehicle that would not be a good thing.”
 
“So whether or not we are in love with the towing companies that are here, they’re the companies that are here,” she said. “These are the companies that have the on-island storage.”
 
Commissioner Michael Góngora returned to the Commission in November but recalled the issue from his last service on the dais. It was a months-long, emotional process, he said, “But at the end of the day … the majority of the calls that I get are from people that have residential permits not being able to park in front of their home because there are illegal people parked there, so people do benefit from this service.” He acknowledged Sunset Harbour and Terminal Island as “the only locations that we have if we’re going to keep towing in the city, and I do agree that we should keep it in our city.”
 
The previous Commission explored “every idea at that time” and “I think rather than continue this item year to year without any specific goal or strategy, we’re just setting up emotional meetings of the Commission,” Góngora said. Noting that prices have remained stable for twelve years and residents received discounts on towing, “The only thing that I would be open to pursuing is how we could better insulate these existing tow yards from our residential neighborhoods. Frankly I would rather keep all of our towing indoors. I would rather our residents not have to see it. I would rather our residents not have to hear it. I would rather we completely look for a way that we could make it look like a beautiful parking garage in the future. That’s an idea that would excite me about exploring it but just to continue this year to year without any plan I don’t believe is a good idea.”
 
Bruce Backman, a Sunset Habour resident who raised the aesthetics issue with Gelber said, “I like the idea of a short-term agreement until both tow companies can present an approvable plan for enclosing their spaces.” Ultimately, he said, such a plan “would make their properties more valuable. It would make Sunset Harbour more attractive, so I think that would be a win-win situation.” He urged the City to encourage a multi-use facility that might include a storage garage with ground floor retail. “This is where the development interests and resident interests can coincide,” he said.
 
Resident Dan Marinberg who is also an investor in a proposed development project across the street from Beach Towing, said, “I’ve been a resident of Miami Beach since 2004. I’ve seen the growth of the city. I’ve seen the progress of the city. I’ve seen neighborhoods such as Sunset Harbour change. When I went through there in 2004, it was all industrial. And you take a look at some of the amazing availability of land on the water and from the park and that’s the kind of land that you want people to enjoy. Not to have tow truck operations or industrial uses. So I agree with the Mayor and the changing neighborhood and the appearance of the neighborhood and what happens. We should not stand in the way of progress.”
 
And this is where it gets more complicated. Deco Capital, which Marinberg is an investor in, and Beach Towing are involved in a nasty lawsuit which Beach Towing says is designed to put them out of business.

Ralph Andrade, attorney for Beach and Tremont Towing, set the stage for the newer Commissioners and Mayor. “The gentleman that just came up, Mr. Marinberg, while he disclosed who he was and what his position is, what he failed to disclose is that we’re in litigation with this outfit. The two promoters for this development are here. He’s one of them. They’re suing to try to put us out of business and so I would take anything that he has to say with a grain of salt. They came to this Commission, about a year and a half ago, applied for a spot zoning amendment so they could increase their height double, double their height in this neighborhood. The Lofts opposed it. We exercised our first amendment rights to oppose it and so they’ve embarked upon this campaign to put us out of business and that’s really why we’re here today and why these permits haven’t been renewed sooner.”
 
Andrade said the contracts are terminable upon thirty days notice and urged the Commission to approve the three-year terms.
 
Alemán said she wanted to move the item “as is” for the three-year terms. “I’m very concerned by the testimony I heard here that this is an effort to push them out. This industrial zone was there first.” Referring to a statement Marinberg made that if people had to go to Miami to retrieve their cars they might think twice about parking illegally, Alemán said, “You know the developer/resident that came and said that maybe it’s better, yeah if you put yourself in the position where you get towed then you should have the additional punishment of having to go out to another city to retrieve your car? That’s outrageous. These are our residents and our visitors and we need to take care of them. So, yeah, people make mistakes but pushing the tows elsewhere and forcing people off the Beach to retrieve their cars is really not a good idea … I do like the idea of working with the tows on a possible structure. I think that’s very smart. And would certainly be supportive and I imagine they would as well.”
 
Gelber responded, “We’re not here because I’m trying to put anybody out of business and I sort of reject that concept in total. I’m here because, frankly, it’s something that you get a lot of emails about ... if we have a renewal in a year we can have that discussion with them and they’ll have to know they’re going to be renewed. Why would we renew and then say let’s discuss what you’re going to do?”
 
“I’m not saying we’re moving it off. Nobody has said we’re moving it off the Beach, not a single person has,” Gelber said. “All I’m saying is that instead of renewing for three years I will vote for a renewal for one year and during that one year if [the Neighborhoods Committee] wants to look at it, if Finance, if Land Use wants to look at it, we can ... if everything that some of you have said is true, then we’ll come back and renew, but the idea that we simply don’t want to look at something when there are neighbors who believe that the aesthetics should be changed, there are some neighbors who think that maybe there are other options available or that maybe there’s a code of conduct issue we should look at, I don’t think there’s ever a problem with looking and so that’s all I’m saying.” (Marinberg raised the issue of Beach Towing not being a “good actor” giving an example of an accident he witnessed between a Beach Towing truck and a car in which the tow truck drove off and needed to be chased down by Police.)
 
Commissioner Ricky Arriola said, “The facts are the facts. We have very limited industrial zoning in Miami Beach. It’s this and Terminal Island, so unless we’re willing as a policy matter to say we’re going to have all of our residents and tourists have to go across the Bay to get their cars out of being impounded – which as a policy matter I don’t think I want to go there – we’re stuck with Sunset Harbour and possibly with Terminal Island.”
 
“I live in Sunset Harbour. I would love to see other things happening there,” Arriola said. “But there’s an FPL transformer station there that’s not going anywhere. I moved there knowing the pluses and minuses of the neighborhood. I love the neighborhood so it is what it is. If a better solution can be obtained, meaning work with the tow companies to create a better product, better structures, parking facility, that kind of thing and your idea [to Gelber] extending this for one year while we have those negotiations with the neighborhood and the two companies, I’m intrigued.”
 
When Arriola asked Andrade if that was “palatable” to his client, Andrade said, “In short, no that is not palatable and I think Mayor Gelber’s proposed amendment is improper at this time.” He said the item had been on the Commission agenda for three months and “If this idea or suggestion was out there, it certainly could have been floated earlier and we might have had some resolution already today. So I think it’s wholly improper for us to be ambushed at the eleventh hour at this time.”
 
“What I will commit to you is, renew us for three years, and, you know, guys, we’ve been here for thirty years. We’re accountable to the City,” Andrade said. “We’re responsive to every single Commissioner and staffer in the city and we’ll sit down with you next week and start those discussions and see if there’s a better mousetrap that we can come up with.”
 
When Andrade said no one, including the Mayor had articulated a good reason for the shorter term, City Attorney Raul Aguila said, “The Mayor’s point is it gives the city more leverage.”
 
“We shouldn’t be put over the barrel,” Andrade responded. “We’ve been in the City, we’re good corporate citizens for 30 years. There’s no need to put us over the barrel. We’ll negotiate with the city in good faith as we always have.”
 
Commissioner Kristen Rosen Gonzalez said she would support the three-year term. “Every single time I get a resident complaint regarding towing, they comply and help me with whatever resident that is, especially if it’s a senior citizen … I would like to make sure that we get the resident discount and encourage them against predatory towing.”
 
Addressing the lack of industrial zoning she said, “One of the things about our industrial zoning that really bothers me is that we need to move forward. We need to protect the few areas that we have, services like garages, gas stations, things zoned industrial right now. We can’t be Disneyland, you know, we don’t have the underground so we definitely have to protect the zoning in these areas.”
 
“I do know that there was a contentious fight between the Deco properties and the tow companies,” Rosen Gonzalez acknowledged. “And I would also like to add as much as we dislike towing and we all dislike our cars being towed, it is one of those necessary evils.” She also noted Beach Towing’s contributions – “hundreds of thousands of dollars” – to the PAL program.
 
Commissioner Mark Samuelian supported the Mayor’s recommendation of a one year term. “I think the key thing he is suggesting, it allows us to have a conversation. You don’t know what you don’t know until you engage.” Pointing to Góngora’s idea of an enclosed garage, Samuelian said, “Just in the brief time this has been on the table, an idea came up. To me that’s enough confidence to think that that conversation is worth having and I think one year allows us to do that.”
 
The Commission then voted 5-2 for one-year contacts, a review of services, and the potential of garage enclosures. Alemán and Rosen Gonzalez voted no.
 
The item was referred to the Neighborhoods Committee which is chaired by Commissioner Rosen Gonzalez and includes members Góngora and Samuelian.
 
Like we said, it’s complicated.
 
Photo: Aerial view of Sunset Harbour showing location of Beach Towing and Tremont Towing.
Source: Google Maps

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