Carr Mill Mall is home to some of Carrboro’s most beloved businesses: Weaver Street Market, Golden Fig Books, Tandem, AliCat Toys.

And for the past two months, it’s been the site of a predatory towing operation, run by Barnes Towing and Carr Mill Mall’s property manager Nathan Milian. According to Carrboro Town Council Member Sammy Slade, between September 20 and November 14, 236 cars were towed from Carr Mill Mall’s private lot. Owners have been charged exorbitant, outrageous towing fees – and more if they want to pay with a credit card.

We dug into the council and newspaper archives, and spoke with several knowledgeable people, including Carrboro’s mayor Damon Seils and Carr Mill Mall store managers, to learn more about the current parking situation.

Here’s what you need to know.

What’s going on?

Carr Mill Mall and its parking lot are privately owned. They’ve long had a rule that anyone parking at Carr Mill Mall must be visiting a shop onsite. Over the years, there have been periods where this rule has been aggressively enforced through immediate towing.

We appear to be in an aggressive towing era right now. In a Facebook post from November 8, the mall says that they’ve “upgraded our parking with a new camera system.”

Visitors who remain at Carr Mill Mall are fine. But if you cross the street to return a library book or drop off something, you may be towed within minutes. Cameras are tracking people as they leave the lot.

Who is to blame here?

Nathan Milian is the property manager of Carr Mill Mall. He is responsible for parking enforcement and is behind this operation. Paul Greenberg owns Carr Mill Mall. He lives in Potomac, Maryland, and Milian’s property management firm handles day-to-day operations.

Milian recently sent a document to businesses in Carr Mill Mall called “Carrboro Parking, A short explanation of recent history,” stating that the temporary closing of a municipal parking lot on South Greensboro Street put a “strain on Carr Mill Mall’s customer parking lots.”

The Daily Tar Heel reports that, “A Carr Mill Mall business owner who asked to stay anonymous for the sake of their business, said, while they believe the closing of the Greensboro Street [lot] is the reason for the heightened parking security at Carr Mill, they haven’t seen that strain. The anonymous owner added that they did not receive notice of the installation of the cameras inside the mall or in the parking lot.”

Milian has a long history of complaining loudly about parking availability at town council meetings (search for his name), and opposing efforts from the town to modify parking requirements before and after parking studies have been conducted.

Is he acting in good faith?

We don’t think so. Milian is sitting on an almost completely-empty 2 acre parking lot on Roberson Street, which is designated for employees of Carr Mill Mall. It is largely empty all of the time. Milian has refused, in the past, to rent these spaces out to the ArtsCenter or the town for parking.

In addition, it would be possible for people to receive warnings – or for the lot to be changed to a validated, fee-based parking lot. Neither of these solutions have been explored. Instead, people are towed within minutes. It’s awful. And it’s awful for the businesses at Carr Mill Mall. People are saying that they won’t shop at these small businesses anymore.

So it’s not the businesses in Carr Mill Mall to blame for this?

Absolutely not. The businesses in Carr Mill Mall are upset that this is happening because it affects their businesses. The small businesses at Carr Mill Mall are not the bad guys – they are not happy about this situation, because it’s driving away customers at one of the busiest times of the year. Many of them have signs on their doors warning customers about leaving the lots.

They want parking for their customers – which makes sense and is reasonable. But they don’t want those customers to be fined hundreds of dollars for returning a library book across the street, which has happened.

Is it legal for Barnes Towing to charge these exorbitant fees?

Unfortunately, yes. Up to 2014, Carrboro and Chapel Hill both had regulations in place for capping fees that towing compares could charge. The case King v. Town of Chapel Hill, which went to the North Carolina Supreme Court, “struck down the specific limitations on towing and storage fees, however, as well as the ban on passing credit card fees on to the owners of involuntarily towed vehicles.” Towing companies must also notify local law enforcement within 30 minutes about each tow within a certain time period. (This is in the Carrboro’s own town rules, on page 16.)

(Before the court’s decision, Mayor Damon Seils’ blog notes that Carrboro’s towing ordinance prohibited towing companies from charging more than $100 per tow, charging $20 per day for storage, and charging for the first 24 hours of storage; and required towing companies to accept payment by major credit/debit card and cash.)

What this means in practice: Towing companies in North Carolina can charge as much as they want when they tow a car.  We see this happening with Barnes Towing: they are charging incredibly huge and shameful fees, and more if people don’t have cash on them. It’s outrageous.

What about the signage rules?

There is a provision in both Carrboro and Chapel Hill town law that private lots that tow cars must have signage at designated intervals, and those signs have to be a certain size and have lettering that’s a certain size. (The towns are authorized by the state to have this regulation.)

Sammy Slade reported that the signage at Carr Mill Mall was not in compliance as of November 22, 2023. He write, “Staff has chosen to give a 14 day grace period” to the mall. In other words, Carr Mill Mall has 14 days to get their signage in compliance with state law – and cars can continue to be towed during that time.

What if you haven’t left the lot and get towed?

We’ve heard anecdotal reports that people are being towed despite not leaving the Carr Mill Mall complex. (Carr Mill Mall is big, and you can go from Harris Teeter to Weaver Street Market using a variety of paths.) We are looking into this and what to do if you are illegally towed. There’s also a Carr Mill Mall lot just east of the Station. You would have to leave the Carr Mill Mall property to get to this lot – and leave the lot to get to shops.

Has this happened before?

Yep. In 2008 and 2011, Orange Politics reported on a predatory towing operation at Carr Mill Mall. (Here’s the piece from 2008.) It’s exactly the same thing that’s going on now.

At the time, people in Carrboro proposed holding a park-in and encouraging Carr Mill Mall to charge for parking for a certain length of time (as is done at certain private lots in Chapel HIll). For instance, if you park at the private lot at Rosemary and Columbia, there is a gate and attendant and you pay a small fee/hour to park there. Another option is what Target does: free parking for 45 minutes with validation, and then visitors have to pay.

In 2013, local planner Patrick McDonough wrote an excellent, detailed blog post on how Carrboro could implement performance parking pricing and help local businesses, prevent people from being towed, and still have free parking available throughout the day in Downtown Carrboro.

We’ve been having these conversations for a while.

Is it likely Milian will add validated parking to the Carr Mill Mall lot?

No. There are no incentives for him to change his model – and his past behavior has shown that he is not willing to work with the community on this.

Doesn’t this go against the very vibes of Carrboro?

Yep. Milian is also the person who tried to block Bruce from dancing on the Weaver Street Lawn back in 2006. (A good and detailed read on the dance issue is here.) Weaver Street Lawn is a de-facto public space — possibly the most beloved public space — in all of Carrboro. It is also part of Carr Mill Mall and subject to the whims of the property owners.

Can the Town of Carrboro do anything?

The Town is in a really hard position – because of the state law, there’s very little they can do. They can investigate the signage – which they are doing. They can also create better wayfinding for people to find the many Town of Carrboro parking lots. (They are doing this with temporary signs but large, permanent signs would be better and more visible. Town staff is currently working on this and hope to have it installed before Summer 2024.)

Economic Development Director Jon Hartman-Brown spent Thursday afternoon placing pedestrian-level signage to inform passersby of available parking. Recognizing that wayfinding signage is coming soon, the yard signs are being placed out before holiday shopping is well underway in Downtown Carrboro.

It becomes more difficult to examine from a tax angle – Carr Mill Mall is in Carrboro, Barnes Towing is based in Chatham, and the owner of Carr Mill Mall lives in Maryland. However, this is a largely cash operation, which means there’s little to no data trail. It may be possible for some state agency to look at taxes or whether an audit is possible. (This is not something the town itself can do.)

Where are the Town of Carrboro parking lots?

There’s actually an abundance of parking lots downtown in Carrboro, including a (currently) free parking deck next to the Hampton Inn. The town maintains an interactive map on the Google Maps app. Lots are located as follows:

Town Commons Lot

301 W. Main Street on Laurel Avenue

Weaver Lot

303 W. Weaver St, across from PNC Bank

Century Center Lot

100 N. Greensboro St

Public Parking

502B N. Greensboro St

Public Parking

Lot behind Acme. Follow signs or enter lot at East Main Street and Robertson Street

Main Lot

108 E. Main St.

Parking Deck and Lot

At Hampton Inn, Boyd Street behind 300 E. Main St

Rosemary Lot

604 W Rosemary St

Fitch Lumber Lot

Available after 5:30 on weeknights, all day on weekends

CommunityWorx lot

Parking available after 6:30 on weeknights.

free-parking-lots-carrboro

In addition, the town is building a new parking deck next to the new library on S. Greensboro St. There are some spaces set aside for library visitors, and the county will receive some spots for their services in the building – but a large portion of the lot will be available for those who want to eat or shop in Downtown Carrboro.

What does the Carrboro Parking Study conducted in March 2022 say?

Carrboro conducted a comprehensive parking study in 2022 and conducted an off-street public parking count. The parking study recommended a unified parking wayfinding strategy for all of Carrboro.

The 2022 study found that occupancy peaks in public lots at about 80% on weekend nights as folks come to Cat’s Cradle or downtown for dinner. The public lots around the Farmer’s Market are of course at capacity on Saturday mornings, as expected. But generally, parking occupancy hovers at around 50% during the day in Carrboro despite the lack of enforcement.

Most parking lots in Carrboro post a 2-hour time limit, but the study found (and Carrboro staff confirmed with their own data collection) that 69% of cars in public lots are staying well past the 2-hour limit on weekdays.

Will the town start enforcing the 2-hour limit?

Yes At a work session on March 14, 2023, the Carrboro Town Council discussed the results of the parking study. Ryan Byars details what they talked about here. Staff are also working on the implementation of 2-hour parking enforcement, which will help turn the lots over more. This is a good thing: parking enforcement in Carrboro will mean more spots are available downtown when you need them.

What can I do if I’m mad at the predatory parking situation at Carr Mill Mall?

We’re all really mad too. Here are some ideas we have:

  • If you see someone crossing the street at Carr Mill Mall, tell them.
  • Write to Town Council and ask them to ensure that all rules (signage, reporting to law enforcement) are being enforced for Carr Mill Mall.
  • Voice your concern about predatory towing to your state representative. (You can also write to Council or town staff. However, it’s important to manage expectations here. There is very little the town or staff can do legally to curb these activities – so you can get your complaint on the record, but it’s likely not going to change anything.)
  • Use the free bus system and alternative modes of transportation (if possible) including the J and CW bus to get downtown if you have easy access to that.

Melody Kramer is a Peabody-award winning journalist whose work has appeared on NPR and member stations around the country, as well as in publications ranging from National Geographic to Esquire Magazine....