For now, Warsaw can claim victory in its long-running battle with Pete’s Towing and Storage since the Richmond County Circuit Court ruled that the business must clean up its act and remove dozens of vehicles from the property at 6004 Richmond Road. However, this may not be the end of the town’s legal entanglements with the property’s owner, Joseph Douglas.
Douglas bought the property “about six years ago” but initially, he wasn’t operating his business there because “the parking lot was too badly damaged by heavy trucks and weather,” he explained. After completing work on the grounds, in 2019, he applied for and received a business license from Warsaw to operate a towing, service, and sales operation.
No one really observed the property since it sits back off the road and there was an old shopping center helping to block it, Warsaw town manager Joseph Quesenberry said. But when the town started working on The Bounds, they also started doing field visits. And on one of those occasions, Quesenberry, community development specialist Melissa Coates and Warsaw Police Chief Joan Kent reportedly found 88 vehicles and “bags and bags of trash.”
“We were in shock…We immediately started to act on it,” said Quesenberry.
Before the matter was addressed in court, Quesenberry and Coates outlined a series of efforts they made to work with Douglas to handle the matter. But according to them, the attempts didn’t yield the expected results. The town had several of the vehicles towed away, but Douglas had them brought back.
Quesenberry said Douglas eventually removed the bags of trash and some vehicles. But “we learned that he really wasn’t being genuine in his efforts and we were getting the run-around. So what I do in times like this, that could potentially have legal implications for the town, I completely defer them to our legal team,” said Quesenberry.
“Our town code states we can move the vehicles and we have full authority to do so. However, in order to play it safe and be 100% certain there will be no countersuit or anything of that nature, we [wanted to] let the judge give the court order to remove them. As town manager, I’m supposed to be the steward of funds and I thought that was the best thing to do,” he added
Douglas’ court response
In court documents, Douglas acknowledged receiving three violation notices from the Town of Warsaw between March 2019 and May 2020, but he said that one of those was for the grass being too tall. And he “denies that the vehicles are inoperable, constitute a public nuisance, or are detrimental to the public health, safety and public welfare of the town.”
Douglas claimed Pete’s Towing is authorized to impose liens on vehicles for unpaid service and hold them until the debt for the towing and storage is paid or the vehicles are auctioned off, and the vehicles on the property were being held for that purpose.
Business license denied
Douglas claims he is the one who got the run-around. He was operating Pete’s Towing with a license throughout 2019, and expecting to continue, in December, he sent the application to renew his business license for 2020.
In January, he started inquiring about the status and said Coates told him to look for it in the mail.
Douglas said he continued moving vehicles onto and off his lot, “in good faith” that the business license was on the way. But after allegedly more calls and about two more months, he was still getting excuses and being told things like the office was busy but the document would be coming, so he called and said he was coming to pick up his business license.
At that point, the conversation changed, “they told me they would have to call me back,” said Douglas.
Quesenberry returned the call and asked what it is that Pete’s Towing actually does at its Richmond Rd. property, Douglas explained. “And I told him I do towing and storage and was trying to get on the county and town list [for towing.] And I’d been talking to the state police on Route 3. And [Quesenberry] said, ‘well I’ve got some bad news.’”
At that point, Quesenberry allegedly told him the business license “had been sitting here” on his desk while he decided what to do with it. But now, because of the cars and trash bags he had decided he wasn’t going to provide it.
Douglas explained that “there was never any trash.” What the town staff saw were double-bagged bundles of clothes for charity, “some of them were like brand new and still had the tags on them.” Sometimes, when Pete’s Towing is clearing parking lots, property management companies allegedly request that they remove the donation boxes for clothes and shoes. If they aren’t claimed by the companies that own them, Pete’s Towing will eventually scrap the boxes but they ensure the clothing goes back in circulation by donating it to places such as Goodwill and the Salvation Army.
“That’s just a goodwill deed and Pete’s Towing doesn’t make any money off of that.” But in March, thrift stores stopped accepting donations due to the coronavirus. So, we were storing the clothes until later, Douglas explained.
As far as the cars, Douglas said the town claimed there were 88 but he “never counted” and whatever the number, they’re not all the same as when the town first discovered them because vehicles are constantly coming in and going out. Some are recovered by the owners. Those that need a small fix are repaired and sold and some are junked. But there are some vehicles on the property that belong to military, “and we definitely cannot get rid of them,” he added.
Douglas said the town accused him of running a junkyard, which isn’t true because he’s never sold a part from that property. He also said Warsaw told the court that DMV deemed the cars “not intended for use.” But that’s also false.
“I told the judge, there’s not a car over there I can’t put a battery in, pump up a couple tires and run down to DMV and get the car inspected and be ready to go,” he said.
Special use permit denied
After Douglas couldn’t get his business license renewed through the town staff, he said they told him to try to get a conditional use permit.
But Warsaw’s planning commission recommended against it, the town staff didn’t support it, and ultimately, Warsaw’s Town Council voted against it.
Douglas still wanted to pursue the right to operate in Warsaw, so Mayor Randy Phelps told him to speak to Quesenberry about an appeal.
But there is no appeal process for decisions on conditional use permits, which meant the only option Douglas had left was to take the matter to court. And the court ruled in the town’s favor, ordering all vehicles to be removed by no later than November 1, 2020.
“We want to be known to work with people. We’re not the type to just crack down on folks. But this [situation] has to be remedied. No one else gets to do that and [Douglas] shouldn’t get to either,” said Quesenberry.
If any vehicles still remain after the court-imposed deadline, the town will have them removed and will place a lien on the property for the amount of the cost of removal, Quesenberry added.
What’s next for Pete’s Towing?
Although Pete’s Towing operates elsewhere, Douglas claims Warsaw was the main facility. It provided the space to work on vehicles, store them, and hold them. And the court’s decision is “detrimental.”
“[Warsaw] cost me a lot of money. They trespassed on my property, towed cars and heavily damaged two of them,” Douglas alleged explaining he had to pay $2700 to repair the damage caused to a Range Rover. Plus, he had to spend $2,400 to get the vehicles towed back, as well as thousands of dollars in legal fees that he incurred in this battle.
Douglas said he doesn’t know what he’s going to do now. There are some parties interested in the property but he’s not sure if he wants to sell.
“I’m not sure if I want to be in Warsaw. I just don’t like how it goes down there.”
“It’s just been lies and fighting against me,” said Douglas.
“I’m talking to an attorney. I think my civil rights have been violated. And that’s the big money right there. If I can settle out on that, I don’t even need that place down there,” he added.
When asked which civil rights he believed the town violated, Douglas replied “I can’t elaborate but I’ve been wronged. I’ll have to consult with my attorneys before I could say anything else.”