By Brooke Lewis
If you stop for pizza or a sub on Westcott Street in Syracuse, you may want to be careful where you park.
If you park in the lot next to the Papa John’s to get a pizza from the restaurant, you are good. But don’t venture across the street to the convenience store for a couple of drinks to go with your pizza or stop at the sub shop for a sandwich.
Your drinks or sandwich could end up costing you $150.
The parking lot’s owner, like several private parking lot owners in Central New York, is booting cars that park illegally. A Syracuse University fraternity has used the boot on a game day and at least one downtown Syracuse parking lot has turned to the boot too.
Instead of towing cars, the parking lot owners put a boot or wheel lock on an illegally parked car. The car owners have to call the operator of the lot and pay a fine to have the boot removed.
For decades police and municipalities booted illegally parked cars, but now private parking lots owners here and across the country are using the boot. It’s now being used on private lots from Portland to Chicago to New York City.
The boots cost the private lot owners $200 to $600, according to companies that sell the wheel locks.
Lot owners use boots as an alternative to towing vehicles parked illegally.
Gerald Mason, president of California Immobilizer, a company that sells wheel locks, said there are advantages to using a boot: you don’t think the car, when you find it missing, was stolen because it has been towed; you don’t have to find a tow lot and you have a safe place to sit while you wait.
“Say if it’s minus 20 in some areas of the country in the winter time, you can sit in the warmth of your car,” he said. “You’re not wandering around in terrible weather conditions looking where the heck the car went to.”
In some cities, however, the practice of booting has caused car owners to complain to city officials about the way the companies booting cars operate.
In Seattle, car owners complained that some parking lot owners were charging as much as $200 to remove the boot. That city has made it illegal for any property owners to boot cars. If they use a boot, they face a year in jail and a $5,000 fine.
Is it legal in Syracuse?
Syracuse appears to have no laws that address whether a private party can boot another vehicle, according to Syracuse Police Sgt. William Croft, who has been handling complaints about private parking lot booting on Westcott Street.
The booting on Westcott Street began in July and Syracuse police have received five complaints over the last few months from car owners. They had their cars booted in a Westcott parking lot owned by Norman Roth, an area landlord and owner of University Hill Realty. (Roth did not respond to several messages left for him by syracuse.com.)
Initially police officers were unsure if they should remove the boots or not, Croft said. So far the police, Syracuse Department of Law, and the Onondaga County District Attorney’s office have found no city laws that make such booting legal or illegal, he said.
“There’s too many problems with this kind of stuff,” Croft said. “There probably will be a law put in place to kind of keep everything under control, to kind of regulate, but right now there’s nothing.”
Syracuse has clear towing ordinances, so Croft advised the owner of the Westcott lot to use those laws for guidance. He told him to have signs posted with the amount a customer must pay to get their car unbooted and to list a phone number to call. He also advised that someone has to be available to remove the boots.
The booting of cars in the Westcott Street parking lot has left a lot of car owners and area business owners frustrated.
“You can be out of your car in minutes and they’re waiting,” said Lorraine Koury, owner of Boom Babies, a shop on Westcott Street that sells prom dresses and other formal dresses.
Sometimes six to 10 cars a day would be booted in the parking lot over the last few months, she and another business owner said. In the last few weeks, fewer cars appear to be getting the boot.
Booting cars can be lucrative. To get the boot removed, car owners must pay $150. If six cars are booted a day, that’s $27,000 per month.
Crys Eldridge, night kitchen manager at Beer Belly Deli & Pub, which is located next door to Papa John’s, says the booting is affecting the restaurant’s customers.
“We have a lot of customers who have come in and they’ve parked there. A lot of people don’t know, especially if they are from out of town,” Eldridge said.