City Council Backs Derelict Property Ordinance

City Council, News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The Blue Ridge City Council backed their newly proposed Derelict Property Ordinance during their meeting on Tuesday, June 11, 2019, citing improvements to current ordinance.

One of the structures targeted by the Derelict Property Ordinance. Click to enlarge.

As one would expect, the ordinance was drafted in response to currently standing structures that are in need of repair. There were several specific locations the city has been struggling with, some definitely worse than others.

The ordinance was drafted by attorney James A. Balli in response to Jeff Stewart (Zoning, Land Development, Project Manager of Blue Ridge, Ga.) and the City Council’s requests for a solution to the properties in question.

Suzie Soave, a sales associate at local real estate company, had initially asked Stewart what could be done in response to comments such as “why some of these structures are allowed to be eyesores and possibly dangerous to the neighborhood and why ordinances are not being enforced.”

There is already a similar ordinance in place, though City Clerk Kelsey Ledford states that the current ordinance is “outdated, completely open to interpretation which encourages selective enforcement and would allow the mayor and council to without notice order an abatement of a nuisance property. If notice was provided the only hearing is in front of the mayor and council, no court or no warrant. If a citizen disobeyed the council order, they are subject to arrest.”

Another one of the structures targeted by the Derelict Property Ordinance. Click to enlarge.

She continues that this proposed ordinance “removes far-reaching power from the mayor and council in this area of law”, and “removes the ability for someone to be arrested for non-compliance, and adds procedural safeguards require by the state to protect citizens.”

Council member Rhonda Haight says that this ordinance will allow Police Chief Johnny Scearce to better do his job, with Mayor Donna Whitener stating that the new ordinance would be much more straightforward in regards to what Scearce’s responsibilities would be regarding enforcement of the ordinance.

Only one citizen signed up to speak against the ordinance; Michael Eaton, former Blue Ridge Zoning Board of Appeals, stating that he believes this ordinance will have unintended consequences, and thinks that Mayor Whitener may use it in her favor.

Many in attendance seemed to have concerns despite the council’s efforts to distinguish fact from fiction regarding the new ordinance, however.

Another view of the first building. Clearly not in as bad of shape as the second. It is located near the other building. Click to enlarge.

Only one council member, Kenneth Gaddis, spoke out stating that he believes that the council is rushing the ordinance, citing that tax payer money is on the line for something that he believes the council has had little discussion about, especially considering that the first reading was of a draft that still needed modification.

The ordinance is set to be voted on and potentially passed during the councils July meeting (currently scheduled for Tuesday, July 9, 2019 at 6 pm), and those who wish to speak before the vote should contact City Clerk Kelsey Ledford to sign up.

(Apologies for the quality of the second half of the video. A different recording device had to be used, but this shouldn’t be an issue in future recordings).

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Can the City of Blue Ridge now seize your property? Here’s what a new ordinance has to say…

City Council, News

BLUE RIDGE, Ga. – The Blue Ridge City Council held a first reading of their Derelict Property Ordinance, or ordinance BR2019-08 during their meeting on Tuesday, May 14, 2019.

This 36 page ordinance focuses on what the city considers to be “derelict and blighted property within the City”, and as many citizens are rightfully concerned, gives the city power to do anything from raising taxes on such properties to seizing the property entirely.

Properties that are potentially in violation of the new ordinance are all of those the city deems “[…]is unfit for human habitation or commercial, industrial, or business use or occupancy due to inadequate provisions for ventilation, light, air, sanitation, or open spaces; poses an imminent harm to life or other property due to fire, flood, hurricane, tornado, earthquake, storm or other natural catastrophe; is vacant and used in the commission of drug crimes; is occupied and used repeatedly for the commission of illegal activities, including facilitating organized crime or criminal enterprises after written notice to the owner of such activities conducted therein;  is abandoned; or otherwise constitutes an endangerment to the public health or safety as a result of unsanitary or unsafe conditions[…]” (lines 124 – 133).

The ordinance doesn’t state who exactly would be in charge of inspecting such properties, but that they are empowered to “Investigate and inspect the condition of dwellings, buildings, structures, and private property within the City to determine those structures and property uses in violation of this article. Entries onto private property shall be made in a manner so as to cause the least possible inconvenience; provided, however, the enforcement official shall not enter into any occupied dwelling or structure without first having obtained the consent of the owner or a person in possession. In those cases where consent to entry is denied after reasonable request, the enforcement official may apply to the municipal court for an administrative search warrant upon showing probable cause that a violation exists.” (lines 149 – 159).

If the property is found to be in violation of the new ordinance, the city ultimately will make the decision as to whether or not the property is worth having cleaned up and repaired or demolished completely.

“If the repair, alteration, or improvement of the said dwelling, building, or structure can be made at a reasonable cost in relation to the present value of the dwelling, building, or structure, requiring the owner, within the time specified in the order, to repair, alter, or improve such dwelling, building, or structure so as to bring it into full compliance with the applicable codes relevant to the cited violation; and, if applicable, to secure by closing the structure so that it cannot be used in connection with the commission of drug crimes; or If the repair, alteration, or improvement of the said dwelling, building, or structure in order to bring it into full compliance with applicable codes relevant to the cited violations cannot be made at a reasonable cost in relation to the present value of the dwelling, building, or structure, requiring the owner, within the time specified in the order, to demolish and remove such dwelling, building, or structure and all debris from the property. (lines 232 – 246).

The ordinance also states that those who are in possession of “[…]a common, ill-governed and disorderly house, to the encouragement of gaming, drinking, illicit drug activity, or other misbehavior, to the common disturbance of the neighborhood or orderly citizens, shall be guilty of an offense against the City[…]”.  (lines 405-408).

The enforcement penalties? Fines to having public water services removed from certain properties.

“Any person who willfully refuses to comply with the provisions of this article shall be cited to appear before the municipal court and, upon conviction, shall be fined not less than $500.00; each day of continued violation, after citation, shall constitute a separate offense. In addition to the foregoing fines, upon conviction, the director shall discontinue the public water supply service at any premises upon which there is found to be a cross-connection, auxiliary intake, by-pass, or inter435 connection, and service shall not be restored until such cross-connection, auxiliary, by-pass, or inter-connection has been discontinued. ” (lines 429 – 436).

If the property is found to be in violation of the new ordinance, it may also be subject to increased taxes.

“There is hereby levied on all real property within the City which has been officially identified as maintained in a blighted condition an increased ad valorem tax by applying a factor of seven (7.0) to the millage rate applied to the property, so that such property shall be taxed at a higher millage rate generally applied in the municipality, or otherwise provided by general law; provided, however, real property on which there is situated a dwelling house which is being occupied as the primary residence of one or more persons shall not be subject to official identification as maintained in a blighted condition and shall not be subject to increased taxation.” (lines 521 – 529).

There will be a meeting in the near future that will allow a public hearing regarding the ordinance prior to the official vote by the City Council.

We have attempted to reach out to the Blue Ridge City Council for further clarification on this proposed ordinance, but have not yet received any communication from them regarding it.

An open records request has been delivered to the council, so we will keep you updated on further developments!
 
 
 
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Sisson – Setser Property Dispute

News

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).

Swan-drive-in-pic-608 Sisson-prop-side-4

 

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.

Sisson-area-4-5

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!     

Swan-drive-in-pic-608       Sisson-prop-side-4

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

  1. 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.

insert-executive

City of Blue Ridge Sept 8 2015 Meeting Minutes

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!

BKP

 

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