Baldwin County Circuit Court Judge Joseph Norton has recused himself from a civil case disputing a recent zoning election in Point Clear, a district where his wife has an alleged financial interest. On Dec. 29, Baldwin County held a referendum for a few hundred residents south of Fairhope to determine whether or not they wanted to create a new planning district.
Indeed, 324 people cast ballots that day, with 296 in favor of the proposal. But the referendum almost immediately drew backlash from minority residents in the newly created Planning District 19, who claim the district lines were unfairly altered to dilute their vote. In March, two Black residents filed suit against the Baldwin County Commission, and the case was assigned to Norton.
The Baldwin County Commission answered the lawsuit March 31 and the next day, Norton granted a partial motion to dismiss the case without holding a hearing on the matter. In May, a representative of the plaintiffs argued Norton’s order violated rules of civil procedure, and the fact that his wife’s real estate company sells property in the district constitutes a conflict of interest.
As Lagniappe has previously reported, Laura Norton is an owner of Wise Living Real Estate, and her connection to other developers and lenders caused Norton to recuse from a separate civil case in 2019, after he presided over it for nearly five years. In Planning District 19, plaintiffs’ advocate Willie Williams said the primary proponent of the referendum, Tracy Frost, is married to a prominent lender with ties to Wise Living Real Estate, while the company itself also has at least one property listing in the district.
Williams, president of the Baldwin County Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration Committee Inc., said he filed a complaint against Norton with the Judicial Inquiry Commission (JIC). In May, Norton accepted the plaintiff’s motion to reconsider the partial dismissal and a hearing was set on the motion Tuesday.
However, Williams has since reported he has received a letter from JIC indicating it has “probable cause” to investigate the complaint and on June 8, Norton recused himself from the case without explanation. The case has been reassigned to Judge Scott Taylor and the hearing has been reset to late July.
“Part of the complaint was his wife’s company was selling real estate in the district, but an independent judge also told us ex parte motions require a hearing, plus the case [Norton] cited in the dismissal didn’t pertain to our case at all,” Williams said. “This case is not contesting the election itself, it’s contesting how the district boundaries were drawn.”
For its part, the Baldwin County Commission has proceeded as if the district is legitimate, adopting its zoning ordinances earlier this month. One provision creates the county’s first “Family Heritage Overlay District,” which carves out special provisions for nonconforming uses on “heirs property” typically owned by Black families in the area. However, if the properties are ever significantly damaged by hurricanes or other disasters, they lose those protections.
In a brief email to Lagniappe last month, Frost defended the integrity of the district but did not explain how the boundaries were drawn.
“As far as the comments from opposition, there have been many false statements made in regards to the intent of the request to come under the county zoning jurisdiction, process validity and election results,” Frost wrote. “I would closely verify these and any additional comments to be factual before printing, as they are not only false but inflammatory.”
County Administrator Wayne Dyess said state law requires the boundaries for planning districts “shall correspond to a voting precinct or precincts in the county unless the county governing body determines that the use of voting precinct boundaries is not feasible.” Dyess said a former employee of the county worked with residents of the district to draw the boundaries and he could not explain what was not feasible about the voting precinct boundaries.
Meanwhile, Williams compared the Black residents of Point Clear to the Gullah population of the East Coast, many of whom were displaced from valuable coastal properties after natural disasters.
“Hurricane season just started and now they have this hanging over their heads,” he said.
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