Bolton Hill resident Matt Steen found out the hard way that neighborliness during a snowstorm only goes so far.
When he and his wife couldn't make it up the snow-clogged hill to park in a spot they had shoveled out last week, they parked overnight at a nearby Save-A-Lot store. They figured they could park there because the lot had been plowed and the store was closed. But by the next morning, their truck had been towed.
As the snow piled up to record levels, residents in some of the most difficult-to-maneuver city neighborhoods have found themselves in similar situations and facing fines of as much as $300 to retrieve vehicles. Residents with few parking alternatives have been outraged to find their cars towed from lots for businesses they frequent as customers at a time the city is urging neighbor to help neighbor.
On the flip side, retailers and commercial property owners say they too are facing a parking crunch and need the space for their employees and customers - and they are loath to take on the liability that could come with opening their lots to the masses.
Snowstorm or no snowstorm, a policy is a policy, said a spokeswoman for Save-A-Lot, the landlord in the shopping center where Steen parked his truck and where posted signs clearly designate the spots for customers only. The signs warn that cars parked illegally will be towed at owners' expense and risk.
"It's still enforced," said Maureen Shannon, the spokeswoman. "It's our policy for the safety of our customers and those in that shopping complex."
The Rev. Mark Huffman, pastor of a Lutheran church in Lutherville, said he understands such policies during normal times. But he was incredulous when his 22-year-old daughter called him Saturday, crying and saying that her car was about to be towed from the large Safeway lot in Canton.
His daughter, Jodi Huffman, said she was standing near the tow truck, keys in hand, begging the driver to let her drive her car away. She said tow trucks were working to remove about 50 cars, all with orange violation stickers on their windshields. The Luzerne Avenue resident said she had checked on her car just the night before.
"I wasn't leaving it there being lazy," she said. "There was literally nowhere else to park. I was sure [it was OK] because there was no street parking because of the snow. ... I didn't think they would ever come out and tow."
Huffman, a special-education teacher, said she's staying in Timonium until some of the snow melts. Mark Huffman helped his daughter retrieve her car from the towing company for $240.
"That's her food budget for the month - the food she buys at Safeway," he said.
Calls to officials with Safeway's eastern division were not returned Monday.
Another resident of Canton, Matt Danowski, said he drove home from his job as an electrical engineer late Sunday night to find that all the parking spaces had been taken or reserved with lawn chairs - a Baltimore tradition.
In the past, he has parked in a pinch overnight in Rite Aid's lot and says "they've been decent about it." But when he returned at 7:30 a.m. Monday, his car was gone, and two tow trucks were at work removing two other cars. He had his roommate drive him to the Auto Barn towing company's lot in West Baltimore and paid $260 to get his car. He said the experience has made him less likely to shop at Rite Aid, just blocks from his home.
"I understand where they're coming from, but their customer base is a big part of this community, and we patronize them," he said. "Something like this, with the snow, it's kind of a slap in the face to be honest."
Cheryl Slavinsky, a spokeswoman for the drugstore chain, said the retailer usually doesn't mind if area residents park in the lot between 10 p.m. and 8 a.m.
"We don't like to tow cars. Usually it's not a problem, except when there's snow," she said. "When there's snow it becomes a safety issue. We can't plow because people aren't moving their cars. In that case, we've had to tow."
City Councilman James B. Kraft, who represents Canton, said Monday he heard numerous complaints from residents about Safeway towing cars. He said the grocery chain, at a corporate level, refused a previous city request to open the lot to the public during the snow emergency.