Parking crackdown draws angry reactions

A Plaza building owner's crackdown on parking violations has cost local residents hundreds of dollars in towing bills and prompted a Facebook-fueled boycott of businesses inside.

Stefanie Claycomb, owner of Claycomb's Plaza Mall at Main and Water streets, recently installed security cameras and hired a towing company to remove violators in the daytime and to completely clear the lot after 8 p.m. — even if the cars belong to Claycomb shop owners. The lot is posted as one-hour parking for mall customers only.

Ashlee Melikian, who has parked in the lot for the past four years while working her evening shift as a waitress at Thai Pepper, found her car had disappeared Monday night.

"It brought me to tears," Melikian said. "The $350 for towing is going to kill me, with all the bills coming on the first of the month. I had to borrow money from my 11-year-old sister's piggy bank to get the car out last night."

Irate local residents, using Facebook, have called for a boycott of Claycomb mall businesses. The business owners say they have no control over parking or towing and even have been towed themselves.

Claycomb, whose family has owned the lot at 40 N. Main St. and nearby shop spaces for three generations, said the lot has become a favorite after-hours spot for drinking, vandalism, drug deals, even lover's lane activities. She said the 21 parking spaces are needed for shop tenants and their customers — and that lax security leaves her open to liability for damages or injuries.

"I'm fed up with people breaking the rules," she said. "Rules mean something from me. I'm old school.

"I see lots of people parking here and going off to graduation ceremonies, Shakespeare, the Black Sheep, Noah's Rafting, leaving cars here for six or eight hours, making it easy on themselves and hard on the shops."

Claycomb started clearing the lot at night on Jan. 17.

"The no-parking signs have been up forever, but she didn't enforce it," said Kevin Huggins of Plaza Salon & Spa. "Her putting up (bigger) signs and going for enforcement caught everyone off-guard. This is such a wonderful place to park. Locals got used to it, but sometimes our clients couldn't get in. I totally see her point of view and her liability."

Sitting in one of his salon chairs, Heidi Grossman of Ashland recalled returning from a restaurant dinner at 8 p.m. a few days ago and finding her car towed to Central Point — "a very bad way to end an evening ... and very non-Ashland, not friendly or reasonable," she said. "I mean, the lot is empty all evening."

Towing violators is perfectly legal, Ashland police Deputy Chief Corey Falls said. "If people park on your property, you can tow them all day. The bottom line is that it's private property."

A Facebook posting called for a boycott of all shops served by the lot and noted, "In this economy this is no way to treat locals!! Every store in the mall would have been closed, so there was no harm to those businesses. Everyone parked there was supporting local restaurants!" Facebookers on the thread debated whether boycotting should be used to force shopkeepers to pressure the landowner.

Shopkeepers said they had noticed only minimal effects of the boycott, if any. Conny Shadle of Bug A Boo noted the boycott is "really unfortunate and unfair to merchants. We don't own the lot. We get towed, too."

Many merchants in the Claycomb block — and others up the street — said they'd received letters from a towed shopper vowing she would never shop in that block again.

Ken Ehlers of Ashland Optical Expressions, who received such a letter two months ago, said the towing policy "doesn't build good will ... and I'm concerned about the loss of business over this issue. It's hard enough to do business in this town."

Claycomb, however, said she's tried everything possible in the 11 years since she took over the family business to bar motorists who aren't shopping at Claycomb-owned spaces, but with little success.

In the past, when she asked owners of illegally parked cars to leave, Claycomb said she was physically shaken by one woman and "called the b-word by two others." Warning stickers put on car windows were removed by motorists and, said Huggins, put on his shop windows.

If shop tenants have lost customers over illegal parking, Claycomb said, "then they weren't their real customers. The true customers want a place to park. If they punish the shop tenants, it makes no sense at all. It doesn't hurt me; it hurts the shops."

Towed motorists complained loudly about their vehicles being towed to Central Point, 15 miles north, but Claycomb said she retained Crater Towing because of the care it took with vehicles, loading them on a flatbed truck and being courteous to upset people.

Mark Brady of Crater Towing said he began "clearing the lot" in evenings in mid-January, towing two or three a night, for an average fee of $300. He said he charges only for the first 10 miles and offers to drive owners from Ashland to Central Point to fetch cars.

Brady said while in the lot towing a car, he's warned off other motorists who tried to park there. Most thanked him and left, but some drove around cones placed at the entrance, threw gravel or become verbally abusive. "One tried to ram my driver when he walked in front of them," Brady said, adding the act was captured on the lot's webcam.

Shopkeeper Ehlers said a solution that would work for everyone is a mechanical gate that would give tickets to be validated at eligible stores.

"I've researched it and it would cost $12,500," she said. "You could make a lot of money off it, instead of having a big fight on Facebook."

John Darling is a freelance writer living in Ashland. E-mail him at jdarling@jeffnet.org.

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