HAMPTON, N.H. — A New Hampshire parks official has admitted the state never anticipated the Hampton Beach towing problem.
Neither did the dozens of beachgoers who have had their cars towed this summer.
Here’s the problem: People are getting towed from spaces the state leases to businesses and property owners. Beachgoers are parking in those leased spaces — and having their vehicles towed off as a result. But they claim, and officials acknowledge, it’s tough to see the signs marking the spaces as leased.
Phil Bryce, director of the state Division of Parks and Recreation, said the state has started putting up new, more visible signs.
While the state has leased spaces to private businesses and homeowners for decades, a change in the ticket kiosks this year appears to have exacerbated the confusion.
The old kiosks wouldn’t accept money for leased spaces. That’s no longer true. Families eager for an afternoon on the beach are, in good conscience, paying $4 for two hours of parking. Dozens of them have returned to their vehicles to find them gone, parked in a nearby tow company lot — with a hefty bill attached.
Bryce acknowledged the question of reimbursing those towed is interesting. But, he said, it has not been formally considered to this point and he would want any such program limited to those towed prior to posting of new signs.
“We never anticipated this problem,” Bryce said. “Now, we’re going to have to work on getting it fixed. We want people to have a good experience at Hampton Beach State Park, not a bad experience.”
New signs are larger and will be more visible. Officials also may put a notice on kiosks themselves.
Bryce said the state is not calling the tow companies.
State law permits property owners, or those who lease property, to have vehicles towed from their own property.
“It appears (lessees) have set up relationships with the towing companies themselves,” Bryce said. “We’re not going to tow from those spots.”
The towing problem is a big one for beachgoers and harmful for the beach’s tourist-friendly reputation. One company said it has towed 69 vehicles in about a month’s time.
Big towing charges, some exceeding $200, have some people saying they won’t come back.
Sandown resident Linda Brown said she is going to small claims court in an effort to recover towing fees incurred when her daughter’s car was towed.
The operations supervisor for state parks, Mike Housman, told Brown last week officials were working on ways to clearly mark leased spots.
“We are committed to review/replace all lease signage to provide better visibility/clarity for our guests,” Housman told her in an email.
The state is first going after those spaces identified as the worst problems.
“Our intention is in the next few days putting up 2-by-4s and no-parking signs in those spots,” Bryce said.
The state is consulting property owners about which leased spaces are having the most trouble.
There are 127 leased spaces among 1,648 the state has at Hampton Beach.
“We recognize the need businesses have for parking for their clients and visitors,” Bryce said.
The leasing program is at least 43 years old, by one estimate Bryce received from a veteran staffer.
The governor’s office hasn’t received complaints yet about the parking and towing issue, but did call the Division of Parks and Recreation after being contacted by a reporter about the problem.
Colin Manning, spokesman for Gov. John Lynch, said the division assured the governor’s office they are moving to address the problem. “They appear to be,” Manning said.
Others wouldn’t have it any other way.
A former New Hampshire Senate president, who leases parking spaces from the state for her apartments at Hampton Beach, said officials should act swiftly to end the confusion.
Bev Hollingworth, who is campaigning to return to the state Senate, said she would like to hear the state’s side, but sees this as a fairness issue. Hollingworth said she would even consider having the state reimburse those whose vehicles were towed.
“People should be compensated for the tow,” she said.
An executive councilor whose constituents from the Derry area frequent the beach said he plans to raise questions about the situation with both the governor and the state officials responsible.
“I’ll be on the horn with them and the governor,” Executive Councilor Raymond Wieczorek said last week.
Wieczorek acknowledges it is a difficult issue because the state is leasing spaces to business and property owners who have the expectation others will not park in them.
“You don’t want to be going out of the way offending different groups,” Wieczorek said.
But Hollingworth said she doesn’t think beachgoers should be blamed.
“It’s not their fault,” she said.