by Walker County News Today staff
After a lengthy discussion at its regular meeting on Tuesday night (Feb 20, 2018), the Huntsville City Council voted to postpone further discussion of a proposal for the City to sell a small but controversial strip of city-owned land on Sam Houston Avenue next to Humphrey’s Bar and Grill.
The question before the Council was what to do with a parcel of public property, bought and paid for by the taxpayers of Huntsville, when that land has been taken over for private use by a private company and is being actively used by that company in the operation of its private business. In this case the land has been paved over, allegedly without the City’s knowledge, and is being used as extra parking by Humphrey’s.
The issue first surfaced two years ago when the Council attempted to sell a roughly .6-acre parcel that was internal to the city block bordered by Sam Houston Avenue, Avenue L ½ and 19th and 20th Streets. The parcel had no access to city streets except for a narrow strip connecting it to Sam Houston Avenue that ran between Humphreys and another business (the former Wendy’s) just to its north.
That first attempt to sell the property failed after irregularities were discovered in the competitive bidding process causing the results to be publicly protested by the losing bidders and others in the community. As a result, the Council chose to reject all bids and terminate the bid process.
The matter lay dormant for a year and a half until last December, when Councilmember Keith Olson proposed that the City again attempt to sell the property, but this time without the access strip. In the Council’s discussion of this proposal it surfaced that the strip had been paved over, allegedly without the City’s knowledge or permission, and was being used for customer parking by Humphrey’s.
The Council approved proceeding with the sale of the property without the access strip. That competitive sealed bid process resulted in bids being opened last month and the sale being approved by the Council at the February 6, 2018 meeting.
But that still left open the question of what to do with the remaining, now controversial, strip of land. Mayor Andy Brauninger placed an Item on the agenda for this February 20, 2018 meeting to have the Council consider selling the property by another competitive sealed bid process.
Councilmember Rodriquez began the discussion by noting that “there apparently is a business that’s been using this portion of the property as a parking lot. I feel that the Council is obligated to protect the citizens of Huntsville from somebody using their property without compensation and I sent an e-mail to the Mayor, Mr. Kulhavy and Mr. Schneider wanting to know what we could do about it and Mr. Schneider replied we had to take bids. I just think that we have to do something with this property instead of letting this business continue to use it without compensation.”
Councilmember Allen then asked City Attorney Leonard Schneider what he thought about a private business taking over the City’s property. Mr. Schneider replied.
“Once the council became aware of it, a solution needed to be done. It needed to be brought by a councilmember to do the solution and it was brought by the Mayor to do so.”
Councilmember Allen then challenged the claim that no one at the City knew about the paved parking lot at Humphrey’s. “Somebody got a hold of me about a year and a half ago. And I called the Ex-City Manager, Matt Benoit and he called me back in about a week and he says, ‘I’m not doing anything about it.’”
Councilmember Allen then asked the City Attorney if anyone contacted him about a year and a half ago about this. Mr. Schneider replied he didn’t recall the exact time but that several people have contacted him, and he has advised everyone that “you can’t allow city property to be used without compensation. I also advised everybody that nobody can adversely possess City property.”
Councilmember Paul Davidhizar, apparently agreeing that something needed to be done, noted that “I believe that our two options are to put it out for sale or put it out for lease. I don’t know right now if I’m in favor of selling it, I don’t know why, I just haven’t thought enough about it, perhaps.”
That prompted the Mayor to say “I’m a little concerned about the liability that the City may have if we lease it. In my mind the cleanest and easiest way to handle this piece of property is to sell it and for the City to move on.”
But Councilmember Olson was opposed to the sale, “I think we’re taking a risk of putting local businesses out by doing this this way. To say that we’re going to put one piece up and there may be somebody to go in there and hold a local business hostage, I have a problem with that.
After a little more discussion, Councilmember McCaffety made a motion to postpone further discussion of this issue for two weeks. That motion was approved 8-1 with the Mayor voting “No.”