HILL AIR FORCE BASE -- Hill Air Force Base's insistence on playing hardball over what is known as an "airfield clear zone" has the future of one Layton small business in jeopardy.
The owners of Top Line Auto Sales in Layton could ultimately lose a huge chunk of their parking space, the ability to display their merchandise properly, as well as having their main garage bay rendered useless by a fence the Air Force wants to erect.
Top Line, 747 E. Highway 193, specializes in selling used autos, boats, trailers and RVs -- but it also provides a number of other vehicle-related services like custom upgrades, accessories, detailing and consignment sales.
Dee and Donna Manning own the shop while their son, Jeremy, serves as the general manager. The Mannings lease their building from Kari Smedley, whose family has owned the property for nearly 40 years.
The Air Force owns a triangle of land to the immediate west of the Top Line building that bisects a parking lot the auto sales company has been using to display vehicles and to provide parking space for customers.
A passerby would never know the property is owned by the Air Force. There are no markings, signs or structures indicating a property boundary line.
Smedley said that for as long as she's owned the property, the understanding with the Air Force has always been that the parking lot can be used in whatever way she or building lessees sees fit, as long as no permanent structure is ever built and the lot is maintained.
Hill purchased the slice of land from Smedley's in-laws in 1976.
"We haven't had any problems in all the years we've owned the land," Smedley said. "We've always known the Air Force's property line intersected our parking lot, but we've used it pretty much however we've wanted. There haven't been any issues -- until (the Mannings) got the letter."
The letter Smedley speaks of came on Nov. 22, 2013. It was addressed to Dee and Donna Manning and sent from Hill's 75th Civil Engineer Group.
The letter informed the Mannings they were in trespass of Air Force property and asked them to "Please take immediate action to remove all your equipment and vacate the premises."
The letter instructed the Mannings that a random inspection of the property would then occur sometime in January to ensure compliance and that if the trespass wasn't corrected, legal action would be taken. The letter can be found at www.standard.net.
"We were pretty much shocked," said Jeremy Manning, recalling the day he opened the letter in the mail. "It pretty much came out of the blue. But we complied. We took everything off of the lot and put it into storage."
When the Mannings moved their merchandise, sales at the store dropped dramatically.
"People thought we went out of business," Manning said. "If you drive by any car lot in the world and you see no cars on the lot for multiple days, weeks -- what else would you think? December was a rough month for us."
According the Hill, the property in question is part of the airfield clear zone, which is a safety area located immediately off the ends of active runways.
Within a clear zone there is a high potential for accidents, Hill says, and property use within the zone is restricted to be compatible with aircraft operations.
"Runway clear zones are required for safety reasons, both for the pilot and those on the ground," said a statement from the base that was sent by email to the Standard-Examiner. "The Air Force generally acquires off-base land to prevent development in this area."
According to Air Force code, acceptable uses within the clear zone include agriculture livestock grazing; permanent open space; existing or new water areas (provided they don't create bird strike hazards); rights of way for single track railroads and fenced, two-lane highways.
Hill said it is unaware of any property usage agreement that exists between the base and Smedley and that a fence defining Air Force property would prevent unauthorized use and encroachment and protect the public from injury due to potential aircraft mishaps.
But Smedley and the Mannings say that argument doesn't hold water.
Several large structures already exist in what Hill has defined as the clear zone. Geneva Rock has a large structure in the clear zone and a set of storage units just to the northwest of Smedley's property also appear to be in the zone.
"There are these big storage units right in line with where they want to put the fence up," Smedley said. "There's the (Geneva Rock) building. But my tenants can't park their cars in the parking lot? It makes absolutely zero sense."
Seeing nothing but dead ends in their own attempts to reason with the base, Smedley and the Mannings have utilized the services of Utah Rep. Rob Bishop and Layton City, which have both been in discussions with the base.
Layton City attorney Gary Crane sent Smedley a letter dated Feb. 6 that said the city had convinced Hill to hold off on erecting the fence while alternative options are explored. Top Line will also be able to put some of their merchandise back on the lot for the time being.
Layton Mayor Bob Stevenson said his administration is trying to resolve the issue without impacting Top Line.
"We're working very closely with the base to try and resolve this in a way that will satisfy both sides," he said. "We want to meet the needs of the base, but we also don't want to see any impacts to one of our city's small businesses."
After receiving Crane's letter on Thursday, vehicles were taken out of storage and placed back on the lot that belongs to Hill. Smedley and the Mannings felt some optimism for the first time in weeks, but still worry about the future of the business.
"I think it's a step in the right direction," Smedley said. "But we really want to get something in writing that will allow us to either buy this little triangle of property so we can have a parking lot, or that will allow us to use it in a reasonable manner."
In a statement sent to the Standard-Examiner on Friday, Hill officials said the fence is still being considered, but the Air Force is looking at all alternatives that will keep the clear zone compliant with airfield requirements.
Contact reporter Mitch Shaw at 801-625-4233 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @mitchshaw23.