The attorney for a family whose request to rezone property for a wedding chapel was denied last week submitted a formal letter challenging a planning commissioner’s ethics in denying the request.
Ridge Rairigh, attorney for Linda Moore Kelly, told the Dawson County Board of Commissioners that Planning Commissioner Vernon Smith should have recused himself from the Aug. 19 vote. The vote recommended denial of a proposed rezoning that would allow Kelly to open a rural wedding chapel on Kelly Bridge Road.
“Vernon Smith owns an establishment which would be in direct competition with Linda Moore Kelly’s proposed business,” Rairigh said.
Smith, who was appointed to the planning commission last year, owns the Lakeview Center. The banquet hall on Dawson Forest Road is a site for galas and community events, as well as about 20 weddings a year.
On Friday, Smith said he would have recused himself from the vote only if the planning staff had recommended approval of the rezoning. “Otherwise, I wouldn’t have done anything different. The issue was the people out there do not want commercial businesses,” he said.
Kelly and her husband James petitioned the county to rezone about 2.5 acres on Kelly Bridge Road from rural agriculture to commercial community business. The Kellys want to transform a recently relocated 102-year-old church into a quaint wedding chapel in the country.
Rairigh said Smith would benefit financially from denying the rezoning request.
“Vernon Smith’s conflict of interest rises to the level that the code of ethics demands his recusal and Mr. Smith should have disqualified himself from the hearing on Tuesday without prompting,” Rairigh said.
Planning commissioners are an appointed board that makes recommendations on planning and zoning matters to county commissioners.
Their decisions to recommend approval or denial are based on evidence presented by the county’s planning and zoning staff.
The planning staff had recommended denial of the request, saying it was inconsistent with surrounding land uses, with surrounding zoning and with the future land use plan. The staff also noted adverse impacts on traffic and suggested approval could lead to additional rezoning requests for the rural area.
Smith made the motion last Tuesday to recommend denial of the rezoning after he and other planning commissioners received letters of opposition to the rezoning request that would allow a commercial business in an otherwise rural area.
Planning commissioner Lionel Graves made a second to the motion to recommend denial. The vote passed 3-2, with Chairman Richard Bergen breaking the tie to send a denial recommendation to the board of commissioners for a final vote.
Rairigh submitted the formal objection letter to the board of commissioners last Thursday during the final zoning hearing.
The Kelly’s request to rezone the property is a two-fold effort. The family wants to open a wedding chapel. The family also promised the congregation at Mount Vernon Baptist Church to restore the 102-year-old church and preserve its heritage. Rather than seeing the church torn down to build a new church, the
Kellys volunteered to move the historic building to their Kelly Bridge Road property and transform it into a rural wedding chapel.
“We agreed to give the building to the Kellys as long as they promised to use it for something that would respect the church building’s long history. I think a wedding chapel does just that,” said Gaye Cantrell, a Mount Vernon Baptist Church building committee member.
Following discussion with the county attorney concerning the Kelly’s objection to Smith’s vote, several residents in the Kelly Bridge Road area spoke out in opposition to the proposed request to locate a commercial business in the rural district.
Linda Moore Kelly said she was surprised to find out so many of her neighbors were opposed to her opening a rural wedding chapel on her family’s property.
“I was shocked last week that so many of my neighbors were against the chapel,” she said Monday. “I wish my neighbors would have come to me with their opposition.”
In the end, county commissioners agreed with the planning and zoning recommendation and denied the rezoning request with a 4-0 vote.
“The allegation would not affect our decision, whatever decision we make?” asked District 1 Commissioner Gary Pichon to County Attorney Joey Homans.
“Based on their (the Kellys) allegation, what they are saying is you should disregard the planning commission recommendation.”
District 2 Commissioner Terri Tragesser said she would like to see the planning staff re-evaluate current zonings to identify a zoning designation more suitable to a request similar to what the Kellys made.
The Kellys say they plan to continue restoring the church.
“We’ll do exactly what we told the church (congregation) and make it nice for the community,” Linda Kelly said. “God’s in control. He’s got something better planned.”
E-mail Michele Hester at firstname.lastname@example.org.