About two dozen residents of historic York turned out at a meeting of the city’s historical commission Monday to protest a planned used car lot on East Liberty Street, in the center of the historic district.
Jerry Benfield, a York native, said he purchased the 3.5-acre property about two years ago, and is operating a bail bond business there. But Benfield said he wants to gravel the area fronting Liberty Street for a used car lot business, with about 15 to 20 cars.
The property is a narrow strip between Wright Funeral Home and historic Rose Hill Cemetery, where grave sites date to the early 1820s. It is bordered by Cemetery and Hunter streets.
Benfield said his bail bond business is operating in a stone building at the back side of the property that was formerly inhabited by a cemetery monument company. He said he has enough land to operate another business, but can’t have more than one business in the present office.
Gary Gross, an East Liberty Street resident and member of the Yorkville Historical Society, was among about a dozen people who addressed the panel to argue that a car lot in the historic district is “entirely inappropriate.”
“It’s out of character with what the city and the historical commission have been trying to do,” said Gross. He said a car lot would be more appropriate at the edge of town, outside the historic district.
Marc Phileman, another East Liberty Street resident, said he and others have invested time and considerable money to improve their homes and to meet strict standards of the historic district.
“When we came to York, most of us put most of our life savings into repairing and rebuilding this historic district,” Phileman said. “And we all, somewhere along the line, are going to sell our property. We don’t foresee a car lot being an asset to our properties.”
The property is zoned general industrial, said city planning director David Breakfield, who said a car lot would be permitted under that zoning. However, Breakfield said a site plan would need to be submitted by the property owner and be approved by the commission.
One resident asked about rezoning the property, but Breakfield said rezoning requests usually originate with the property owner. Another suggested the historic commission petition the York City Council with a request to rezone the property to a different zoning category.
Ed Wood, chairman of the commission, said the commission’s role is to evaluate the property’s significance, consider the overall integrity of the area, define the project type, determine if the project sets a precedent and decide whether it will contribute to the preservation of the community.
Wood suggested postponing further deliberations until November to give the historical commission and the property owner time to gather more information. The commission approved that suggestion.
Wood said the rezoning issue is one question to be addressed. He also said the property owner needs to know what sort of expense would be required for the plan to go through.
Benfield addressed the group, saying he is a 36-year resident of York and has invested money to improve the property. He said he is prepared “to do whatever landscaping we need to do to make the property look good.”
He added: “I want to make it look nice for York.”
However, Phileman said that a gravel parking lot “is in no way, shape or form what we have been doing to our homes.”
Jan Ramsey, another member of the historical society, said she admires what residents have done to their homes. “It’s a historic street and a historic cemetery and a historic neighborhood,” she said.
“A used car lot across the street is going to devalue their homes,” she said. “I am 100 percent opposed to putting a used car lot there.”
John Hiott, a Kings Mountain Street resident who is custodian for Rose Hill Cemetery, said the industrial zoning is unfortunate. “I don’t think it’s appropriate,” he said.
Vern Eakin, president of the historical society and a Liberty Street resident, noted that the process of getting approval for any changes in the historic district is a long one. He noted that one resident took eight months to get approval for a wrought-iron fence on his property.
“It’s not going to be an easy deal,” Eakin said. “It’s not an easy process. You’ve got to jump through a lot of hoops.”
Mark Hill, a commission member who also lives on East Liberty Street, noted the city’s recent selection as one of the “best old house neighborhoods” in the South by This Old House magazine.
He questioned if that selection would have happened if there were a used car lot in the historic district. “It’s not just our own property,” Hill said. “It’s everything York has been trying to build for many, many years.”