March 20, 2013 10:30:37 AM
A currently defunct gas station is at the center of a dispute between the City of Columbus and the station operator, who contends he is not responsible for removing four free-standing fuel tanks which city fire officials have declared a hazard.
Eddie Byars, president and registered agent of Suitsus Developers Inc., appeared before the city council Tuesday night with Columbus attorney Hal McClanahan, arguing that as an individual, he is not liable for the property, located at 1270 Highway 69 South at the intersection of Yorkville Road.
City fire chief Kenneth Moore said he has issued seven citations since June 2012 for failure to remove the tanks and is now issuing new citations every 10 days. Initially, he said, Byars alleged he lost the first two citations and they had to be reissued.
Byars appealed to the city's Board of Adjustment of Planning and Appeals in September on the basis that he believes the provisions of the fire code do not fully apply to his situation.
But the appeals have not been heard because policy dictates all members be city residents and there have not been enough members to constitute a quorum, city attorney Jeff Turnage told the council.
The fire code states fuel tanks that have been out of service for more than a year are to be declared abandoned and removed.
But McClanahan said Byars is not currently able to operate the station and use the tanks due to an eminent domain case with Lowndes County that began in 1995 and "through a series of unbelievable situations" has not been resolved.
The county condemned the front part of the property and moved the county right-of-way within eight and a half feet from the fuel tanks, making it impossible for him to continue to operate, McClanahan said. Although Byars removed other abandoned tanks on the property, he intends to operate the station again once the eminent domain case is resolved.
McClanahan called the situation "a genuine legal quagmire," saying Byars was only required to file the appeal -- until he receives a hearing, there is nothing else he can do.
The citations should be issued to Suitsus Developers Inc., McClanahan said, not Byars.
"So how do you put a corporation in jail?" Turnage asked.
"You don't," McClanahan said.
"So therefore, all a person has to do to commit a crime is say the corporation did it and everything's copasetic?" Turnage joked.
After four citations, the city can close Byars' business, McClanahan told the council, arguing that though it is not currently functional, it is not closed or abandoned.
It is not the first time Byars has found himself at odds with the city over the property, councilman Kabir Karriem pointed out. The city previously ordered that the property be cleaned up.
"This property has been sitting there for some time in Ward 1," councilman Gene Taylor said. "It's really a disgrace the way the property has been taken care of. ... We've been dealing with this since August. ... The grass has been an overgrown lot for some time. We haven't gotten any satisfaction on it."
Taylor asked the council to follow Moore's recommendation to give Byars 30 days to remove the tanks before the city goes in, but councilman Charlie Box protested, making a motion to table the issue for 30 days while Turnage and McClanahan try to work things out.
"This eminent domain case has being going on in the county since 1995, so we could all be in the nursing home by the time this one works its way through," Turnage quipped.
The motion to table the issue failed 4-2, with only Box and Gavin voting in favor.
Taylor's follow-up motion to proceed with Moore's recommendation of giving Byars 30 more days to remove the tanks before the city takes over passed 5-1, with Box opposing.
Turnage and McClanahan agreed to meet to try to resolve the situation.
In other business, the status of Lawrence Public Transit's proposed bus line was not discussed because Dorothy Dowdell, director of the company's Columbus operations, failed to show up for the council meeting. The Indiana-based company entered into negotiations with the city in September 2012.
The next city council meeting will be held April 2 at 5 p.m. at the Columbus Municipal Complex.
Carmen K. Sisson is news editor at The Dispatch.
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