YORK — Two business owners in York’s historic district engaged in a heated clash over parking as the York City Council moved forward with a property rezoning to thwart a proposed used car lot there.
Wright Funeral Home owner Bridget Wright told council members last week that Jerry Benfield, who owns a neighboring business at 13 Cemetery St., where he has proposed opening a car lot, tried on two occasions to tow the cars of funeral home patrons parked on or near his property.
Wright told the council she was “horrified” when a private towing company employed by Benfield showed up to tow the cars of “grieving families” on Jan. 3 and 6.
She called the situation “completely untenable,” and said patrons have been parking in that area for 60 years without any problems.
“He’s just been so vindictive,” Wright said of Benfield after the council meeting. “It would have been a simple matter to say, we’ve got people, they’re not parked right, how about you have them move the cars.”
But Benfield’s York attorney, Martin Foster, told the Enquirer-Herald that Benfield has a legal right to post no-parking signs and to tow any cars that are parked on his property.
“He has the right to tow them,” Foster said.
York police responded to the site of a heated verbal dispute over parking between Wright, Benfield and others and no cars were towed, said Police Chief Andy Robinson. He said no report was filed because there was no violence and no arrests.
Wright, who also serves as a York municipal judge, told the council the tow truck driver used a racial slur against a funeral home patron during the dispute.
Benfield said police stopped the cars from being towed because they were unsure whether the cars were parked illegally. He said it was later confirmed that he does have the right to tow cars parked on his property.
“They’re just angry because they’ve been parking for free there for so long,” Benfield said. He said he offered a lease of the property to Wright for parking “and she didn’t want to lease it.”
The council gave second and final approval last week to a measure that would send the zoning of Benfield’s 3.5-acre property back to the city planning commission with a request that the panel consider a change to a residential zoning. The measure allows up to 180 days for the zoning change to take place.
The narrow strip of Benfield’s property, located between the funeral home and historic Rose Hill Cemetery, has been zoned general industrial, under which a car lot would be a permitted use.
However, car lot would not be permitted if the zoning is changed to residential.
The issue arose in October, when Benfield approached the city’s historical commission seeking permission for the car lot. The commission later denied his request, saying he did not provide sufficient site plan details.
Residents of the historic district and members of the Yorkville Historical Society showed up at two city meetings to protest the car lot, and presented a petition with more than 500 signatures in opposition.
The council took the first of two votes in November to refer the zoning issue to the planning commission to request a review and a change.
Any zoning change recommended by the planning commission would come back to the City Council for a public hearing and a vote before it would be final.
Benfield, who did not attend last week’s council meeting, called the city’s approach to the car lot issue “a double standard.”
“Nobody wants me to have a car lot there, but yet they want to park 30 and 40 cars on my property,” he told the Enquirer-Herald. “Yet I can’t park 10 cars there to earn a living.”
Benfield’s lawyer, Foster, said the city has a legal obligation to compensate Benfield if it takes away the commercial use of his property by rezoning it to residential.
Both sides said they are waiting for Benfield to provide an appraisal of the property.
Mayor Eddie Lee has repeatedly maintained that the property should become a park. However, Lee said during and after the council meeting that the city is not going to purchase the property.
“We can’t buy the property, but we can urge the people to work together for a suitable use of the property,” Lee said.
Foster argued that the city “in my opinion, as a legal matter, has a duty to recommence Mr. Benfield for whatever they have taken from him.”
By changing the zoning of the property to residential, Foster said, “they haven’t left him with any real use for the property. They’re going to have to pay for that. They can call it buying it, they can call it recommencing it. That’s our opinion.”
Lee said the city is acting as a facilitator between other parties “who want to see an appropriate use for that property.”
York resident Ethel Engrum Bankhead told the council that, in light of the parking dispute, she would like to revive a citizens awareness group that previously existed in York to “bring about more unity.”
Engrum Bankhead said she would like to see the Benfield property become a park in memory of the late civil rights leader Martin Luther King Jr.
“We want to put the group together again and work with the NAACP,” Engrum Bankhead, a retired York school district administrator, told council members. The parking dispute, she said, “could have been really an ugly scene, much uglier than it was.”
Jennifer Becknell • 803-329-4077