CHIPLEY - Chipley City Council is likely to sue a former tenant of the Pike Road spray field property if negotiations continue to be unsuccessful.

Chipley City Council has voted to pursue a lawsuit against a former tenant of the spray field property the City was soon to close on if the tenant does not respond appropriately to negotiations.

Under the direction of City Attorney Michelle Blankenship Jordan, the council's unanimous vote at Tuesday's council meeting gives the tenant a 48-hour window to respond to a complaint requesting a response to negotiations that would be reasonable for the City and would ultimately cease the tenant's interference with the closing of the property between the City and the Bultmans, the owners of the 485-acre property located at 33 Pike Pond Road.

On Tuesday, Dec. 11, the council unanimously voted to approve $1,747,000 to purchase the property to dispose of its effluent water.

"I think you got to be aggressive at this point," Jordan told the council. "I'm usually conservative when it comes to spending public money on litigation, but there has been a lot of work to get to this property to this point, and invested a lot into this deal."

"If you want to move forward with this purchase, you're going to have to clear the title," she added. "And this is the only way to do it."

In December, the seller disclosed the existence of a farm lease with its former tenant. Although the lease expired in November, the former tenant made a demand on the seller for access to the property and for the ability to remove sod.

However, when the City offered the tenant to remove the sod, the tenant rejected the offer. The tenant's demand has "morphed," in Jordan's words. At one point, the tenant demanded $200,000, and, as of Monday, that demand grew to $640,000.

And when the City suggested that the latter amount be put in escrow - something the seller agreed to - the former tenant declined the suggestion.

"I think the tenant's claim is frivolous, the seller's attorney thinks the claim is frivolous," Jordan said.

Jordan said it is wholly the seller's responsibility to provide a clear title to the City, however, the City will have to sue the seller and the former tenant in order to secure the property.

In terms of the seller, the suit would force the Bultmans to confirm whether their lease with the former tenant is valid. The suit against the former tenant would ultimately force the party to stop interfering with the business transaction between the seller and buyer.

The tenant's attorney, Kerry Adkison, questions the City's position on suing his client, after all, "(Jordan) even said that the seller would have the responsibility to clear the title - yet, (the City) is going to sue us."

"So, our issue is with not with the City, it's with the owner of the property," Adkison said in an interview Thursday night. He said it was the Bultmans' responsibility to make the City aware that his client was a tenant of the property prior to December.

Adkison said his client rejected the City's offers because, essentially, they were not in the best interest of his client who has planted about 90-acres of sod on the property. He said his client and the seller had an agreement that his client would be able to remove the sod, however, the City would not budge on the timeframe for removal. When the former tenant was looking at about a year for removal in agreement with the seller, the City gave only 60 days.

And, in terms of putting the money in escrow, the tenant declined that suggestion because there is no guarantee he would get what he is owed, Adkison said. 

The sod is worth the $640,000 that the former tenant is now demanding from the Bultmans.

Adkison said he filed a lawsuit Thursday against the Bultmans.

"We're saying that whenever they signed the contract with the City, Mr. Bultman told my client from the time that they signed it, 'don't worry about this, you're going to be able to come get your stuff,'" Adkison said, noting that after the City and the Bultmans signed contracts for the purchase of the property, his client was still working on his sod farm located at the property. But, a few days afterwards, the gate was locked and his client has been denied access ever since.

"Our position is when they signed that contract, there was a leasing agreement in place and consequently the owner of that property should have told the City they did that," Adkison said.

"If it's Baultman's responsibility to clear this title, he got $1.6 million - he can pay ($640,000) at closing and everybody's happy," he later added. "But he don't want to do that."

Nonetheless, the council's 5-0 vote Tuesday night signaled the council would not be timid in its pursuit of the property by any means necessary.

"I would say we do whatever we have to to get this property," said council member John Sasser. Later adding, "We've already invested a considerable amount on testing on this site."

"We've gone too far down the road for this to back up and start somewhere else," said council member Brett Butler.

It is important to note, despite the tenant-seller lease ending in November, the city's attorney could not recommend the City to pursue the purchase of the property while the tenant is making claims to the property. 

"My stance is that we're going to be optimistic about it," said Mayor Tracy Andrews. "I believe that we'll make every attempt to make this good."

"I feel that it is our right to do such and we're just exercising our right to try to bring resolution to this as quickly as we know how," she added. "It's what's right and what's fair."