Our streets are not car dealerships

Floating car dealers who use busy streets as their lucrative sales lots are harming the public in four different ways. They increase risk of accidents as fast-moving traffic must avoid those persons conducting transactions in the right-of-way. They inconvenience residents by hogging hard-to-get parking spaces. They don’t pay any taxes. And they unfairly steal customers from legitimate businesses.

Most local governments ban such roadside car dealerships, which are also already illegal on all state roads. Such bans do not affect residents who simply decide to put a for-sale sign in a window of their personal vehicle as they drive around and park like they normally would.

These laws are intended to halt underground-economy professional auto sales operators who repeatedly buy bargain vehicles at auctions, refurbish them just enough for resale and park several in a row along the Bay Area’s highest-traffic thoroughfares. And unfortunately there is one big loophole hampering eradication of some of the most active bootleg car dealership sites.

On just about any day along San Francisco’s busy 19th Avenue near Stern Grove or busy El Camino Real on the Peninsula, drivers pass blocks where most of the parked cars carry for-sale signs. Two of the most popular El Camino car-display spots in San Mateo County are by the Golden Gate Military Cemetery near Interstate Highway 380 in San Bruno and alongside the Millbrae Office Depot, where the parking lot is used for storing vehicles to replace those sold at curbside.

But because 19th Avenue and El Camino Real are officially state highways, California law is unclear about whether or not local police — the only law enforcement actually patrolling these urban roads — are legally entitled to have street-dealer vehicles towed. As currently written, the law specifies only that the California Highway Patrol or Caltrans can immediately remove any vehicle or structure placed within a state highway for the purpose of selling any article or service.

Senate Bill 279, authored by Sen. Leland Yee, D-San Francisco/San Mateo, would close the 19th Avenue/El Camino loophole by empowering local police officers and sheriff’s deputies to enforce California’s existing public-nuisance towing laws. The bill has sailed through the Assembly and Senate and is presently in conference to reconcile minor points from both versions.

SB 279 is expected to reach Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s desk soon, and we urge him to sign it into law. Local towing authority is necessary to halt these dangerous and blighting street auto dealerships that inconvenience residents and harm businesses in San Francisco and on the Peninsula.

Less direct solutions have previously been tried and failed. The street dealers are scofflaws who ignore red-painted curbs and don’t pay the parking tickets placed on their vehicles. Only rapid, locally enforced towing can take back the public’s streets.

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