South Beach towing companies go to war

Every night, hundreds of unlucky partiers stumble out of South Beach clubs to find their cars gone — hauled to a grim storage lot on Bay Road and held for ransom. Towing is big business for the Beach's only two licensed companies — Tremont and Beach Towing — and since their last competitor went under in 1991, they've been a dual monopoly happy to rake in the cash. Until now.

An all-out civil war has erupted in recent months, as Tremont's new owner tries to build a high-tech garage and Beach Towing does everything to derail the plan. Commissioners are so fed up they're even considering cutting both companies out of the game and opening a city storage lot on Terminal Island.

"This is the most atrocious abuse of the system I've ever seen," says David Nevel, Tremont's attorney.

"All we're doing is exercising our due process rights," counters Kent Harrison Robbins, Beach Towing's lawyer.

The city requires all towing companies to have a Miami Beach lot, and the two firms own all the land zoned for that use. Their proprietors — Tremont's Edwin "Junior" Gonzalez and Beach's Mark Festa — partnered on dozens of other companies and gave heavily to local politicos.

All of that changed when developer Russell Galbut recently bought a controlling stake from Gonzalez. Galbut's plan: Move Tremont into a garage at his newest project, the Windjammer at 1747 Bay Rd. In the meantime, he sold Tremont's longtime lot behind Publix and planned to move into a smaller temporary space around the corner.

That's when Beach Towing jumped in. Starting in September, its lawyers began filing appeals to the Windjammer's permits — at least five in all — Nevel says. Meanwhile, they pointed to the city's tow contract, which requires 100 spaces. Tremont's temporary lot falls well short, they say. "For 30 years, the permit has always required 100 spots," Ralph Andrade, a Beach Towing rep, said to the Miami Beach City Commission on April 13. "It's that simple."

Andrade's speech threw Galbut into a rage. "This is all for the greed of one company," he yelled at the commission. "They're abusing the laws of the city to create a farce on you!"

While the city mediates the Windjammer's fight, Commissioner Ed Tobin also introduced another solution: Let the city do the towing to a lot on Terminal Island.

While Tremont, Beach, and the city slug it out, one thing is certain: As long as South Beach clubs are packed, tow trucks will keep printing cash for their owners.

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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