The residents of Whitestone Road and Cherry Tree Lane in the Woodmoor area of Silver Spring are furious about what they view as a dangerous and illegal situation. They blame the police for creating it.
This pleasant, residential neighborhood of old-two-story colonial houses shaded by tall trees also is the home of Gene's 24-Hour Towing Service. Two tow trucks and a long flat bed truck use the narrow roads, block the view of children crossing the street when parked - and do work for the county police.
The county zoning law states that the area should be used only for residential purposes.
The neighbors have complained to the police and county agencies for years. Last March, in an unusual move, the county attorney's office filed a civil suit against Gene's towing operation. The case, however, will not be heard until October.
Gene's towing service at 9900 Cherry Tree has been one of many towing services in Montgomery County residential neighborhoods that the police regularly have used over the past seven years to tow away wrecked or abandoned vehicles.
The exact number of such operations is hard to determine. The owner of Gene's says she knows of "28 or 29" towing services operating out of homes in the county. "Under the county's interpretation of the law, one truck operating from a home is considered permissible in certain circumstances).
"I said to the police department why do you do business with illegal businesses?" County council member Rose Crenca recalled asking at this spring's police budget hearings. She said a high-ranking police official "replied 80 percent of the tow truck business were illegal."
"When they want a disabled vehicle moved, they don't ask questions," said Crenca.
"It's unbelievable," said Barbara Pearson, who lives across the street from Gene's towing service. "You do think something should be done. You hardly think the people who should be doing something are the ones giving them business."
Like many people on the block, Pearsonis concerned because she has a small child. The area has no sidewalks. She said the trucks "go tearing down the raod. They don't go slow."
"It causes vibrations in my house," said Joyce Smith. "We had the supporting beam in the dining room taken out and replaced because we were afraid it would fall."
Smith watches her two daughters aged 3 and 7, "every time they cross the street." When the trucks are parked in the street, "You have to walk way out into the street to see if a car is coming," she said.
James Hylton, who lives across the street from another towing service in Wheaton, said that two years ago "a tow truck broke loose, came down the hill and came through the side of my house to the tune of $3,000. It could have killed a kid."
Neighbors of the towing companies feel they must have influence with the police. How else could they get away with it? they ask.
There is "no collusion," said Capt. Thomas A. McDonald, who is in charge of the field services bureau of the Montgomery County police department. He explained that the police continued to call Gene's for towing work because "How would you feel if, for example, there were 50 towing firms in violation of zoning regulations and enforcement was just taken against the one because of soke neighbors' complaints?
"The police do not enforce the zoning regulations," he added. "It's up to the county."
"It boils down to it's the only way we have to make a living," said Gene Toms, whose wife Sue owns the towing company. "These neighbors got government jobs. We don't complain about them getting their raises."
"It's all done at the police's request," said Sue Toms. (They also do work for gas stations). The flat bed truck that carries two cars "is subcontracted to Montgomery County" to tow abandoned vehicles, she said. Their trucks also work for the Silver Spring and Wheaton police departments, the U.S. Park Police and Maryland State Police, her husband said.
The police "don't care where you store it [the truck,"] said Gene Toms. "The only thing the police department cares about is getting that wreck off the road so they can get traffic flowing again."
The Department of Environmental Protection prefers to give people "reasonable time" to achieve "voluntary compliances that cause the least damage to someone," and to avoid the delays of legal action, said David Wheeler, chief of the Department's Division of Housing and Animal Control. But, he added, sometimes people string the department along with promises.
The County Council is considering bills requiring tow truck operators to be in compliance with all local laws and get a license. CAPTION: Picture 1, Man who objected to having trucks photographed tries to prevent photographer from taking picture. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post; Picture 2, Trucks in rear of yard at 9900 Cherry Tree Lane. Neighbors have complained that tow trucks create dangerous atmosphere for children in the residential district. By Fred Sweets - The Washington Post