Fewer than three months after leaving office, former Daphne Mayor Dane Haygood filed a lawsuit against the city’s Board of Zoning Adjustment (BZA), appealing its decision to deny an application for a use variance on a piece of commercial property he recently sold to a church.
Haygood, the sole managing member of RedSouth LLC, purchased all or part of several lots in the Daphne Business Park along Stanton Road in recent years, including a 14-acre parcel at the end of the cul-de-sac. Haygood served two terms as Daphne mayor before announcing last year he would not seek reelection. According to probate records, RedSouth sold the 14-acre lot to Restoration Place Church earlier this year for $349,000.
The parties submitted a joint application to the BZA to allow a church on the property, which is currently zoned commercial/industrial. In spite of a favorable recommendation from city planning staff, the BZA denied the application earlier this month.
At a BZA meeting in March, Executive Director of City Development Troy Strunk, a Haygood appointee, cited the city’s Land Use and Development Ordinance (LUDO) and referenced letters of opposition from other property owners in the business park. He suggested the site is “encumbered by several challenges which will limit the church’s ability to fully realize its growth potential” but said, nevertheless, the church was willing to accept the challenges.
“I would not advise the church to settle for this location; however, if the church is adamant about the parcel, I will not stand in the way,” he said, according to minutes from the meeting. “I will state for the record that the site conditions will not be accepted as justification for any future variance requests. Requesting the special exception is full acknowledgment that the church accepts the site limitations and will work within those limitations.”
Reportedly, the site slopes sharply toward a ditch, and its principal buildable area is restricted to just a few acres near the road. Pastor Tim Conaway testified that the church was founded in 2011 at the Lake Forest Yacht Club, then moved to Hot Wheels Skate Center, and currently is housed in a leased location on Highway 98. The church has expanded on the heels of its charitable work, he said, and he envisions growing more online while adding other physical locations in other cities. In that respect, a growth-restricted facility on the 14-acre property in the business park would be adequate.
Among the opponents to the application was City Councilman Steve Olen, who said the LUDO proclaims that no special exception may be granted if it adversely affects the character of a neighborhood. Protective covenants established by the Daphne Business Park prohibit property within from use by a church, Olen argued, and restrict its use to accommodate “general or public administration offices, light industrial manufacturing, assembling, processing, wholesaling, jobbing, warehousing, research and development, and/or a combination of such uses and businesses.”
Olen noted the applicant never sought the approval of the property owners association. Other tenants of the business park include D.R. Horton administrative and title offices, Marjam Supply Company, Fed Corp and Kemper Industries. According to county records, covenants for Daphne Business Park were originally adopted in 1991 and only eight of the 20 lots within the park were ever developed.
At the same meeting in March, BZA Chairman Willie Robison advised that the board should not consider any covenants and restrictions, but only whether the application adheres with the LUDO, and whether it would adversely affect the neighborhood. BZA attorney Shawn Alves agreed, and noted he saw no detrimental effect of the special exception.
The city of Daphne denied a public records request for a copy of the draft minutes from the June meeting, arguing draft documents are not subject to public records requests. But the BZA voted to deny the request.
Attorney Tom O’Hara, representing RedSouth and Restoration Place, said the administrative remedy is the lawsuit.
“They’ve been tight-lipped about why they are denying the special-use exception,” he said. “[The BZA] generally grants special exceptions when their staff recommends approval. The staff looked at this application and recommended approval, but the board, at the first hearing, didn’t even move to vote yes or no. Then they quickly gaveled the hearing closed and didn’t give us the courtesy or respect to tell us why no one made a motion. So something is going on behind the scenes.”
Indeed, the city admitted it made a procedural mistake by informing the applicants in March the special exception was denied before it had been voted on. The BZA officially denied the application June 3.
“The staff recommended approval, and the BZA has not come with any legitimate reason to deny it,” O’Hara said. “Restoration Church needs a home and they bought [Haygood’s] property and plan to make it their home. So the church and RedSouth are doing what anybody else would do and going before the BZA for a special-use exception. It’s allowable and within the city’s rules and regulations and the staff recommended it. So what I don’t understand is why the BZA is not behind this project. I think they’d rather listen to the property owners over there instead of doing the right thing by the African-American church.”
O’Hara suggested that if he exhausts his administrative appeals in circuit court, the case may be ripe for a federal claim under the Religious Land Use Act.
“But it may not go that far,” he said.
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