Attorney: York owes business owner who proposed car lot

jbecknell@enquirerherald.comFebruary 11, 2014 

— The attorney for a York business owner whose plans for a used car lot in the historic district have been thwarted by the city has told York City Council members they need to compensate him for the loss.

Martin Foster, an attorney for business owner Jerry Benfield, told the council last week that it has a legal obligation to pay Benfield if the city moves forward with a planned zoning change for his property.

“The hope has been expressed that someone is going to come along and buy this property,” Foster told the council. “Those people don’t exist.”

Mayor Eddie Lee, who has argued that the city is facilitating discussions between Benfield and his neighbors but that it has no intention to purchase the property, said Benfield has been asked to provide an appraisal for the property.

Foster said Benfield is still waiting on that appraisal to be completed.

The council gave final approval last month to a measure that would send the zoning of Benfield’s 3.5 acre property at 13 Cemetery St. back to the city Planning Commission with a request that the panel consider a change to a residential zoning.

The measure, which would have to come back to the council for final approval of a zoning change, allows up to 180 days for the zoning change to take place.

The narrow strip of Benfield’s property, between Wright Funeral Home and historic Rose Hill Cemetery, has been zoned general industrial, under which a car lot would be permitted; however, a car lot would not be permitted if the zoning is changed to residential.

“Voices have been raised and tempers have been frayed,” Foster told the council, referring to a dispute between Benfield and the funeral home over parking on Benfield’s property. “I’m sorry about that.”

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 lot proposal, and presented a petition with more than 500 signatures in opposition.

Foster told the Enquirer-Herald the city has a legal obligation to compensate Benfield if it changes the zoning of the property to render it unusable for the commercial purpose for which he purchased it.

Foster said that if the city doesn’t compensate Benfield, he will file a lawsuit seeking damages for “inverse condemnation,” which he said amounts to “not taking a property, but reducing its value.”

Lee said after the meeting that the city’s obligation is to protect the neighborhood. The car lot “would irreparably harm that neighborhood,” he said.

“Since the 1830s, the courts have ruled that neighborhoods have rights, too,” he said. “Our council wants to protect the rights of the folks who live on Liberty Street, Hunter Street, Cemetery Street and Madison Street.”

Foster said he doesn’t expect neighbors to compensate Benfield. “Nobody has offered him any money,” he said. “Why is anyone going to pay for this property when they have accomplished everything they want?”

The parking dispute arose when a private towing company employed by Benfield showed up to tow the cars of funeral home patrons parked on the roadway along his property Jan. 3 and 6.

Benfield said he has offered to lease the property to the funeral home for parking and that funeral home patrons are no longer parking along his property.

Jennifer Becknell •  803-329-4077

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