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Dirt-track racing dead in Watertown
Jul 20, 2005 12:00 am
July 19, 2005
A chancery court ruling has brought racing at a Watertown-area dirt track skidding to a halt.
Chancellor C.K. Smith – after spending several hours studying documents filed in the case – ruled the Wilson County Board of Zoning Appeals acted properly in refusing to grant a variance earlier this year which would allow continued racing at the site.
The county sought to shut down Hilltop Raceway in the Commerce community based on zoning violations earlier this year, though its operators asked Smith to overturn that decision, noting races have been at the site for the past several years.
But the chancellor – in a lengthy ruling from the bench – decided racing in the agriculturally zoned district cannot be granted a zoning variance because it doesn't fit the "criteria for use on appeal," which he called "the critical issue in this case."
From the bench Smith ruled racing "does not fit into the character of the neighborhood" and said he found "no evidence that similar uses have been permitted on appeal."
"It's certainly not consistent with what's been allowed up there … the neighborhood, the people, the ideals and so forth," Smith said, calling Commerce "a laid back community with few, if any, businesses."
"A racetrack is certainly a lot different, and I feel like this use is not … consistent," the chancellor said.
Though the ruling appeared to throw the final flag on racing at the site, Smith allowed the track's owners to revert to using the site as a mud bog during daylight hours on weekends only – as the Wilson County Planning Commission originally agreed back in the 1980s when the site was first used as a motorsports facility.
Though racing – particularly of compact autos – has been taking place at the site "for several years," Smith acknowledged, County Building Inspector Kathy Dedmon earlier this year sought to have the operation closed after complaints from area residents.
Most opposed to continued racing at the track cited noise as their primary concern, though other expressed hesitancy over the traffic the races sometimes bring to the area.
Track owner Wayne Anderson, through attorney Gary Vandever, attempted to persuade Smith racing should be allowed to continue at the track because it "evolved" from its original status as a mud bog and because of several Planning Commission approvals of site plans, which included sketchings of an oval racetrack.
Smith said he did not feel Anderson was trying to skirt the law.
"I don't believe there was any bad intent on his part," Smith said. "He went to the Planning Commission several times."
In issuing his ruling, the chancellor detailed the track's lengthy history and noted while approval was given for using the site as a mud bog, no county approval was ever given a racetrack.
After Smith issued his ruling, Vandever sought to have enforcement of the decision lifted while he appeals on behalf of his client, which would have allowed racing to continue until a higher court decides the case.
But County Attorney Mike Jennings objected, noting racing "did not stop at the direction of the Board of Zoning Appeals" earlier this year when the panel first denied Anderson's application.
"There's nothing to be gained from allowing them to continue to do this," Jennings said.
But Vandever argued Anderson's livelihood will be severely threatened should the track be closed immediately, leading to Smith's ruling the site can still be used as a mud bog as originally approved.
Smith's ruling came with as much anticipation – and possibly as large of a crowd – as many of the races which landed the issue in court.
After hearing opening statements from the two attorneys, the chancellor spent nearly six hours in his chamber poring over what he called "a voluminous file" before reaching his decision.
The normally quite chancery courtroom remained packed throughout the day with those awaiting Smith's verdict, which was expected to settle a heated dispute in one of the area's most rural communities.
One of those opposed to the track said she was "somewhat pleased" with Smith's decision.
"At least it won't disturb our sleep at night," she said of his ruling. "My real concern is about the traffic. I've been run off the road twice."
Anderson has 30 days to appeal Smith's decision to the state Court of Appeals. If no appeal is filed, then the track owners will be permanently banned from holding races there, attorneys said.
Senior Staff Writer Brooks Franklin can be reached at 444-3952 ext. 14 or by e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.