Family transfers questioned

Published 11:53 pm Friday, August 21, 2009

The ongoing controversy over the city’s family transfer ordinance has swept up local attorney Jesse Johnson, but Johnson says his actions were routine business.

“I don’t have anything to do with the transfer,” Johnson said in a phone interview this week.

Johnson was named as the agent for the buyers of a Manning Road property that was subdivided via the family transfer ordinance. But the “buyers” are technically only renting the property, because a lot created by a family transfer must be held for 10 years before it is sold.

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The family transfer provision in the Suffolk code allows people to subdivide their property to transfer lots to members of their immediate family. After the lot is transferred, the recipient must hold the land for 10 years before selling it. The ordinance has been amended several times throughout the years, most recently in February, but the intent and the 10-year holding period have been the same since 1999, according to Scott Mills, director of planning for the city.

However, people don’t always follow the ordinance.

In May, City Manager Selena Cuffee-Glenn wrote to city council members that planning staff had identified at least two instances of violations of the ordinance, involving properties on Manning Road and Longstreet Lane. Mills declined to discuss individual cases.

Robert Weeks, who could not be located for comment, subdivided a portion of his property in the 1300 block of Manning Road several years ago via family transfer and apparently transferred the subdivided lots to family members, according to court records.

However, in 2002 and 2003, Weeks entered into at least three contracts to sell the same lots to other people, according to those agreements. Those non-family buyers agreed to mortgage the property through Weeks for a period of 30 years, the agreements state.

However, the property would not be transferred into the new buyers’ names until 10 years from the date of the agreement — coinciding with the time at which it legally could have been sold under the provisions of the family transfer ordinance.

It was not clear if the Weeks properties were the Manning Road violation cited by city officials. Calls to a number listed for Weeks were unreturned, and he did not respond to a message left with a relative.

Two of the buyers for Weeks’ property named Jesse Johnson, the husband of Suffolk Mayor Linda T. Johnson, as their agent and attorney in case of a default. The mayor has frequently voiced her displeasure with the family transfer ordinance, saying its restrictions fly in the face of property rights.

Jesse Johnson says it sounds like a routine transaction.

“It’s a routine thing to be named as an agent to act on default,” Johnson said. “Frankly, I don’t even recall it.”

Though the sales contracts appear to violate the city ordinance, Johnson said the ultimate decision on how to handle a case lies with the client.

“I do things as instructed by clients, as I have to do,” Johnson said. “I take my client’s word that my client has done things in accordance with the law. I have no reason, in the vast majority of instances, to question that.”

Johnson added that people doing family transfers have to sign affidavits affirming that they are doing things in accordance with the law, and both he and the city rely on those affidavits.