Owner in York car lot fight accuses mayor of bullying

jmcfadden@heraldonline.comNovember 9, 2013 

— A York business owner who lost his battle with city officials over property he wanted to convert into a used car lot says in a police report he’s been bullied by York Mayor Eddie Lee.

Jerry Lee Benfield, 37, told police that he feels threatened by the 60-year-old mayor, who took issue with a “bullying” comment Benfield made during a City Council meeting Tuesday night, according to a York Police report.

In the report, Benfield tells police he said the mayor bullied him over his York property at 14 Cemetery St.

According to Benfield, Lee made a comment that was “something like ... ‘I’m not being a bully, but if you would like to step outside, I can show you what a bully I can be,’” the report states.

Benfield further alleges Lee said: “Your green buildings look like a fire hazard, I will be sure and have the fire chief inspect them.”

Contacted by the Herald on Friday, Lee denied making a comment about taking Benfield outside, and said his comment about the other vacant buildings on the property being fire hazaards is a legitimate concern of his.

“I told him that I was not a bully,” Lee said. “I did not challenge him to a duel. I said you’ve got a right to say whatever you want to ... but you still can’t have a used car lot in the heart of a historic district.”

Their dispute stems from Benfield’s attempts to build a car lot on the 3.5 acre site between Wright Funeral Home, preparing to celebrate its 100th year of operation, and Rose Hill Cemetery, where Lee said “people have been buried for 200 years.”

Benfield purchased the property, zoned then as general industrial, about two years ago. That zoning allowed him to open a car lot on the land that also houses his bail bonding business. But the city’s council, historic commission and several neighbors have argued that a car lot in the heart of the city’s historic district would be “inappropriate” to the character and charm of the area.

On Monday, Benfield appeared before the city’s historical commission, whose members asked him to provide a site plan and answer questions about his plans for the car lot, said Lee, who attended the meeting. Benfield stormed out, Lee said, and claimed commission members were taking illegal action by trying to block a car lot.

Benfield said he made allegations about bias because a member of the commission lives across from the property in question and should not be allowed to make a decision that directly affects him. He canceled a meeting with the mayor after reading Lee’s comments in The Enquirer-Herald newspaper that “there will not be a used car lot next to this special place” during an event at Rose Hill Cemetery on Oct. 26.

“That sounds like a no-negotiation to me,” Benfield said on Friday. “After that satement he made, I reckon it just snowballed from there.”

After residents produced a petition with nearly 500 signatures in opposition to the car lot, York’s City Council on Tuesday unanimously voted to rezone the property to a residential classification, preventing Benfield from building the car lot.

Benfield argued against the decision, Lee said, and claimed the mayor acted like a bully. Lee said he told Benfield he was not a bully and never made a comment about stepping outside.

“I think I treated him with respect and patience,” Lee said. About his fire hazard comment, the mayor said: “I think it needs to be inspected. It’s an abandoned building on his property and it’s sitting there. I do have concerns about it being a fire hazard.

“Mr. Benfield is welcome to his opinion, but he still can’t have a used car lot in the heart of the historic district ... next to those two historic places,” Lee said.

York Fire Chief Domenic Manera did not say anything after Lee’s fire inspection comment, Benfield said, and has not been out to evaluate his property.

“I assume he’s just trying to intimidate me as far as siccing his employees on me,” Benfield said. .

Benfield maintains Lee made the comment about stepping outside. He added he’s received numerous calls from people about it and, because council chambers was packed that night, there are several witnesses.

“I feel that they are trying to not only take my property and devalue my property, but I believe they’re trying to bully me into doing what they want done with my property,” Benfield said.

Gary Gross, who has lived in the city’s historic district for about seven years with his wife, was one of the lot’s most vocal opponents. The area’s historic charm attracted the couple to York after they lived in Lake Wylie for more than 30 years, he said.

“A used car lot has a certain aura about it,” he said. “The nature of the business (with) the two neighbors (Wright Funeral Home and Rose Hill Cemetery) on either side is inappropriate.”

“How are you going to make a used car lot look historic, or appropriate for a historic district?” Gross said. “Mr. Benfield bought property with one zoning classification and feels it’s his right to use that property in whatever lawful manner the zoning will allow. Taken to those extremes, he can put a slaughterhouse .. .topless bar ... a number of things that would be inappropriate for that spot.”

Jennifer Becknell of the Enquirer-Herald contributed

Jonathan McFadden •  803-329-4082

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