Beat 14 zoning vote stalled in federal court

A federal lawsuit has stalled a zoning vote in one Shelby County beat and could threaten the validity of previous elections which establish zoning in seven others.

After a petition drive raised the required amount of signatures, Shelby County Probate Judge Patricia Fuhrmeister called for a special election to let the voters of Beat 14 decide if they would be subject to Shelby County’s planning and zoning ordinances.

The election was scheduled for Aug. 5.

But a federal judge put a temporary restraining order on that election after a lawsuit claimed it violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

County officials violated the federal act when they failed to get pre-clearance for the election from the U.S. Department of Justice, said Edward Still, the attorney who filed the suit on behalf of Beat 14 voters Marion Watson, Elvirah Finley and Elzirah Finley Drake.

The lawsuit was filed against Fuhrmeister, Shelby County Sheriff Chris Curry and Circuit Clerk Mary Harris for their roles as members of the Election Canvassing Board.

Todd McDonald, Shelby County’s Planning Services supervisor, said he is concerned the courts might decide that the legislation allowing elections for beat zoning is also in violation of the Voting Rights Act.

&uot;There’s 20 years of work that’s at risk if that does happen,&uot; he said.

Shelby County is divided into 22 precincts, or beats, seven of which currently have zoning.

The county has no planning and zoning authority inside city limits.

Under the current legislation, unincorporated areas are also exempt from county planning and zoning ordinances, unless residents vote for zoning to be applied to their particular beat.

Those who vote for zoning are regulated by the county’s Planning Commission.

&uot;Beat by beat zoning is not an effective way to manage growth in a county,&uot; said Nancy Campbell of the Shoal Creek community, who helped organize the petition for the Beat 14 zoning vote.

Besides a lack of countywide zoning, the biggest problem, Campbell says, lies in Section 8 of the county’s enabling legislation.

Campbell said a resident must go on a &uot;wild goose chase&uot; to meet the requirements for an election so that voters can decide if they want planning and zoning to apply to them.

&uot;It was set up to be difficult on purpose, which is blatantly not fair,&uot; Campbell said.

Members of Shelby County’s Planning Services division agree the legislation could be improved. Planning Services is a division of the Shelby County Department of Development Services, formerly the Planning Department.

&uot;It does not serve the citizens of this county very well to have to go through those types of hurdles to get that done,&uot; McDonald said.

Section 8 also requires the probate judge to call a special election for a beat to be held no more than 45 days after authorizing the petition.

But pre-clearance from the U.S. Department of Justice could take as long as 90 days.

If not resolved, the conflict could make it impossible for residents to obtain a zoning vote in any beat, Campbell said.

And McDonald fears that the beats which already have voted for planning and zoning could be in jeopardy if the courts decide those elections are void because they, too, were never pre-cleared.

Currently, at least six other beats are in the process of organizing petitions, according to Campbell.

But it appears they will be put on hold until the issue is resolved.

&uot;Right now, we have no recourse with Section 8 on the books,&uot; she said.

The possibility of eliminating Section 8 was even incorporated into a recent draft of Shelby County’s Comprehensive Plan.

&uot;Staff has discussed … repealing Section 8 &045; the balance of the enabling legislation provides a sufficiently broad grant of zoning authority,&uot; according to a draft of the plan. &uot;Repealing this section would require the support of the County legislative delegation.&uot;

Campbell has met with State Rep. Mike Hill (R-Columbiana) to discuss the matter.

While Hill said he does not personally believe Section 8 needs to be repealed, he agreed to set up an opportunity for Campbell to plead her case to the county legislative delegation.

Hill said conflict between Section 8 and the U.S. Department of Justice pre-clearance requirements could be settled once pre-clearance is obtained.

&uot;I don’t think they’ll require pre-clearance on any other subsequent votes,&uot; Hill said.

He also said he believes countywide zoning is not the answer, indicating the beat-by-beat referendum gives local voters a stronger voice.

&uot;I think the people still should have a right to decide what’s best for their particular area,&uot; Hill said.

But Campbell said she is not satisfied waiting on a decision from the courts while &uot;there is nothing to protect the interests of the property owner.&uot;

She has consulted attorney Jimmy Nolan to explore legal options.

&uot;What we would hope to have is an order from the court giving us the right to have the election before any zoning or plans are approved for the land in that beat,&uot; Nolan said