Family transfers changed

Published 9:21 pm Saturday, February 21, 2009

A discussion on changes to the family transfer ordinance elicited the first tied vote from the new eight-member City Council on Wednesday night.

Proposed changes to the ordinance have been bandied about for more than a year. The ordinance, which is part of the unified development ordinance, outlines numerous strict conditions under which a parcel of land can be subdivided to give to a family member. Critics of the ordinance say that it restricts property rights, but others say that it allows families to stay close together that otherwise might be forced to sell their land.

A crop of changes to the family transfer ordinance was on the agenda for Wednesday, as well as a public hearing on the changes. The modifications include adding a purpose and intent statement, excluding minors from receiving a transfer of land, and allowing City Council to grant a variance for an unforeseeable change in circumstance. The changes also make family transfers valid only in areas zoned agricultural, rural residential or rural estate, and require plats to be eligible for both a septic system and a well.

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Suffolk resident William Harward was the lone speaker during the public hearing.

“I have an objection to all the rules and encumbrances being placed on the family transfer,” he said. “It is taking property rights away from landholders.”

Harward went on to enumerate various fees involved in family transfers, including fees charged by the planning department, the health department (for well and sewer tests), and more. The ordinance, Harward said, is poorly written and should be redone.

“If you approve this ordinance tonight, you will eliminate almost all family transfers,” he said.

After the public hearing, Councilman Joe Barlow proposed another change, a stipulation that would require recipients of family transfers to begin building a residence on them within two years. He suggested sending the proposed changes back to the Planning Commission for further review.

His fellow members, however, balked at sending the changes back.

“We need to get on with it,” said Councilman Jeffrey Gardy.

Mayor Linda T. Johnson said the ordinance already is too restrictive for her liking.

“I think this is plenty tight the way it is,” she said. “It flies in the face of property rights.”

A motion to refer the changes back to Planning Commission, with the 24-month deadline to begin building added, failed on a 4-4 vote, with Gardy, Johnson, Rob Barclay and Charles Parr voting against it. A few short moments of confusion and murmurs from the audience ended with City Clerk Erika Dawley announcing that a tied vote means the motion failed.

Immediately, Barclay jumped in with a motion to approve the changes to the ordinance as presented. The motion passed on a vote of 6-2, with Councilman Leroy Bennett and Vice Mayor Curtis Milteer voting against it.