When Mr. Jim Sisson (Sisson Log Homes) decided to build a new material staging area to load lumber, he discovered the entire property, which is fenced in and around his property, did not belong to him.
Sisson found that his neighbor, the City of Blue Ridge, owned the property. The city did not realize the property did not belong to Sisson until he applied for the build permit. Sisson then made a public request to the City Council to purchase to small the unused area to meet the setback requirements and expand his business (sources tell FYN Sisson offered approximately $3,700 for 1/16 acre).
Found money! Win, win for Sisson and citizens of Blue Ridge…not so fast. What does Steve Setser have to do with this attempted land purchase? It seems the tract of land the Swan Drive-in occupies is part of the 1/16th acre that Sisson wants to purchase. The plat of survey of the property is attached to the Drive-in lease by and between Setser and the City and therefore would require a modification to the drive-in’s lease.
This could be simple…attach a new copy of the plat to the lease and call it an addendum! Not that simple. The drive-in lease has been hotly contested in the past publicly by City Council member Rhonda Thomas. Several comments have been made concerning the way the lease was written by a former council member Michael Eaton. Eaton led the charge in renewing the lease with Setser.
A little background…Setser pays the citizens of Blue Ridge $500 a month for approximately 11 acres of land, a movie screen valued at approximately $250,000 along with the drive-in buildings. With everything included, the estimated value may exceed $400,000.00!
When Setser was contacted about Sisson purchasing the property, Setser’s attorney, Auric Steel, contacted Blue Ridge City attorney David Syfan at Setser’s request. FYN has obtained a copy of the email from Syfan to mayor and council informing them of his conversation with Setser’s attorney. After careful read of the email below, I will break down in detail several areas of the email.
“Mayor and everyone:
In talking to the Mayor yesterday about the proposed sale of City property to Jim Sisson, I discussed with the Mayor that I thought we were at an impasse regarding this transaction. On Wednesday, September 9, 2015, I received a call from a gentleman that identified himself as “Auric Steel” and that he was/is the attorney for Steve Setzer. I thought that I had sent out an email on this conversation. Mr. Steel alleged that in the executive session of the night before by the Council, that the Council had discussed and agreed to change the lease terms of the drive-in property with Mr. Setzer. I told Mr. Setzer that no one had yet discussed with me anything about the drive-in property except to try to have a conveyance of the small tract that Mr. Sisson needs and without affecting the lease of Mr. Setzer.
Mr. Steel contended that Mr. Setzer uses all of the drive-in property including the area in question and which he identified as being used as a buffer for the drive-in screen and for security of the property. I explained that my understanding was that everyone thought that the property line was the fence and that a simple conveyance of the property [the small sliver needed by Mr. Sisson] subject to the terms of Mr. Setzer’s lease would solve the problem without affecting Mr. Setzer’s lease.
However, Mr. Steel and/or Mr. Setzer seemed to think that the Council was going to change the lease to charge him a greater rental premium and therefore he [Setzer] was not going to agree to anything or would only agree if the lease terms changed for the better [for him].
Therefore, I think we have reached an impasse. It may be that we could break the lease, but that would involve litigation and didn’t know if the City Council wanted to take this step or not.
I suggested to the Mayor, that maybe Mr. Setzer and Mr. Sisson could talk and work something out and that the City could then help regarding anything that they agreed to do.
I’ll be glad to discuss. Thanks, David
- David Syfan”
Please note that the notice that Syfan received a call from Setser’s attorney the day after a Blue Ridge City council executive session meeting. “Mr. Steel alleges that in the executive session of the Council the preceding night, the Council had discussed and agreed to change the lease terms of the drive-in property with Mr. Setser.” It is illegal to have anything in an executive session discussed outside of the executive session. Who ran and called Mr. Setser after the meeting: Councilwoman Angie Arp? Councilman Bruce Pack? Councilman Rodney Kendell? Councilman Harold Herndon? I am going to roll the dice and say it was not Mayor Donna Whitener or Council woman Rhonda Thomas, considering the very public display of dislike for Mayor Whitener and Councilwoman Thomas displayed by Setser. I am going to guess they did not call. The answer of who called Setser and discussed the executive session may be something for a Superior Court Judge to determine.
Next, notice the “Council had discussed and agreed to change the lease terms of the drive-in property with Mr. Setser.” Which City Council member told Setser that they had reached a decision? The city council can only reach a decision on an item in public. The item must be on a public agenda for a vote. To say a decision was reached is a clear violation of executive session and the city charter.
Now, note “Mr. Steel and/or Mr. Setser seemed to think that the Council was going to change the lease and charge him a greater rental premium and therefore he [Setser] was not going to agree to anything or would only agree if the lease terms changed for the better [for him]”. Setser knows the $500 a month rent he pays is a great deal. A property inside the City of Blue Ridge with the value of the drive-in could be possibly be rented for $1,500 to $2,500 a month. One must keep in mind the property belongs to the citizens and the loss revenue is the citizens money. Setser, therefore, has good reason to be concerned about renegotiating the lease. Setser says he will only agree if the lease is to the “better for him”. How much better can it be? Less than $500 a month?
“Mr. Steel contends that Mr. Setser uses all of the drive-in property including the area in question which he identified as being used as a buffer for the drive-in screen and for security of the property”. My only answer to this statement… NOT TRUE. FYN’s pictures of the property show that the property is not used by the drive-in. Our pictures also prove that the new loading area that Sisson wants to build would not affect drive-in operations in any way whatsoever. The city could sell the property to Sisson, put approximately $3,700 in the bank for the citizens, and the drive-in would not be affected in anyway.
City attorney Syfan wrote, “I suggested to the Mayor, that maybe Mr. Setzer and Mr. Sisson could talk and work something out and that the City could then help regarding anything that they agreed to do”. I spoke to Mr. Sisson about talking with Setzer. Sisson told me he met with Setzer and it did not go well. He was able to tell that Setzer was not interested in making any deals unless the city renegotiated the lease in Setser’s favor. Sisson can’t understand why Setser won’t be agreeable to this. When Setser needed a right of way over Sisson’s property to run three phase power for his new digital projector, Sisson allowed it without exception . If Sisson would not have allowed the right away, the alternative available to Setser to get power would have been at a cost of tens of thousands of dollars. Sisson told me, I did it to be a good neighbor and it didn’t hurt my business.
In closing, why is it being left up to the owner of the Swan Drive-in and Sisson to work out a deal on the property? The property belongs to the City of Blue Ridge, AKA the citizens. The City Attorney David Syfan told the mayor and council, “It may be that we could break the lease, but that would involve litigation and didn’t know if the City Council wanted to take this step or not.” Is it time for the city to take the bull by the horns, break the lease, sell the property to Mr. Jim Sisson and rewrite a lease that is good for Mr. Steve Setser and the citizens of Blue Ridge? Setser has done a good job running the Swan Drive-in and the drive-in is nationally know. People come from several states to visit the drive-in. Maybe as they say, “a happy medium” could be reached with a fair market value lease, you know a win, win, win.. Maybe Council member Angie Arp could assist with arriving at a reasonable fair market value since she announced in a City Council meeting that she owns more property than anyone in Blue Ridge, GA. Just saying!
“Economically, we’re supporting a private business and I don’t think the other business owners in the community would really appreciate that.” (more…)