Beach Towing Has Operated Illegally for Decades, Developer Says

Update 4/26: Beach Towing's attorneys have sent a response letter to City Hall. They say the developer's "argument emanates in the Twilight Zone" and that Beach Towing's permits are in order. 

Spend a few late-night hours outside Beach Towing's walled-in lot in Sunset Harbour and you'll surely hear this refrain from a furious tourist realizing he owes $300 to get his car back: "This is illegal!" There's not much recourse for those burned tourists except to fork over the cash.

But now a developer at war with the towing operation is echoing that refrain. Beach Towing, the developer argues in a 14-page letter sent to Miami Beach City Hall, has been illegally operating for decades under the wrong permit and should be shut down.

"Beach Towing Service's towing service operation at 1349 Dade Boulevard is an illegal use," argues attorney Michael Larkin, who represents Deco Capital, a developer planning a luxury condo project on Purdy Avenue. "The City of Miami Beach must act."

Beach Towing says the claims are nonsense driven by the developer's greed. 

"The developer, Deco Capital, is attempting to use the city as its private army to line their pockets at the expense of neighboring property owners and residents," says Ralph Andrade, Beach Towing's attorney. 

At the heart of the argument is whether Beach Towing has the proper permits to run a tow operation. The letter delves deep into the company's past, all the way back to 1956, when a gas station occupied the site. The city gave its owners permits to run a gas station, which allowed towing as an accessory practice.

In the 60 years since, the permits have never been updated to reflect a full-time towing business, the complaint says. Beach Towing's owner, Vincent Festa, bought the site in 1975 and by the mid-'80s had removed all gas tanks and turned the business into a full-time towing company. But his permits never changed, Larkin argues. 

"The Beach Towing operation as it stands today would never have been permitted," he writes in his letter. 

Beach Towing's lawyer says that's not true and they'll fight to keep their operation open. "The allegations contained in the letter are contrived and have no basis in the law or facts," Andrade says. "We trust the city manager and city attorney will swiftly reject it." 

The scuffle over Beach Towing's permitting is just the latest broadside in an escalating war between the powerful tow company and a billionaire developer looking to remake Purdy Avenue. Marc Rowan, a megadeveloper based in New York, is the force behind Deco Capital, which has purchased eight lots along the bayfront street. They plan to build 15 luxury condos stacked atop retail space. 

But Rowan's group needs city approval to build above height restrictions. That has proven a sticky subject, with Miami Beach Mayor Philip Levine recusing himself from the process over ethical concerns because he owns adjacent property.

And Beach Towing has become a major thorn in Deco's side. The tow company holds a restrictive deed on one of the properties, which it used to own, and wants a serious payout from Rowan's group to lift it. Instead of ponying up, the developer sued Beach Towing in civil court (a case that's on hold while the city considers the height request).

And now, Rowan's group has basically exercised the nuclear option. Beach Towing can hardly keep holding up the project, after all, if the city yanks its permits and puts it out of business.

Not too many tourists or careless residents would be upset by that move. 

Update 4/26: Beach Towing has sent City Hall a four-page response letter. The letter lays out a number of legal precedents they say make it clear the towing business has been legitimately operating under city law. Here's the full letter: 

Beach Towing Letter

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Tim Elfrink is a former investigative reporter and managing editor for Miami New Times. He has won the George Polk Award and was a finalist for the Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.
Contact: Tim Elfrink