Is Connecticut an anti-business state? Depends on whom you ask, but a case in my neck of the woods has lawyers, zoning geeks, business advocates — and those who simply like peace and quiet — at loggerheads over who should regulate the goings-on at one of the state’s five auto racing tracks.
At issue is the picturesque but controversial racing venue Lime Rock Park in Salisbury, and who should govern its operations. The town and its 4,000 full-time residents have had a rocky relationship with the park since it opened in 1957. It’s got to be the only race track in the country whose operations are governed largely by a court injunction.
When the quirky and unique track opened in a reclaimed gravel mine in 1957, howls of outrage were heard from nearby residents, especially those who had anything to do with Trinity Lime Rock, the Episcopal church founded in 1874 that sits directly across from the park’s infield on Route 112.
Since Lime Rock Park predates the enactment of Salisbury’s zoning regulations in the early 1970s, most of its operations are grandfathered in and not actively governed by the town. Two years after the park opened, the Lime Rock Protective Association, with support from the church, took the park to Litchfield Superior Court, which issued a still-in-place injunction that includes a prohibition on Sunday racing.
And for reasons that are too complicated to explain here, there is no un-mufflered racing on Fridays, putting the track at another competitive disadvantage and strangling its revenues. Even though state statute allows other tracks to race on Sunday afternoons, the town argues that the law is superseded by the injunction.
Lime Rock Park was not satisfied with the 1959 injunction and appealed the decision. Since there were no appellate courts in the state at that time, the case went straight to the Connecticut Supreme Court, which upheld the Litchfield decision. Since that time, the town has evolved from its working-class origins to become a premier destination for wealthy New Yorkers looking for bucolic relief. Consequently, objections to the noise and congestion of the park have become proportionately more intense.
The park tried to get the injunction altered in 2005 to allow for limited Sunday racing but nothing ever came of it. Town officials said at the time that they had learned of the attempt in the news media and that they effectively had no jurisdiction over the matter.
Now Lime Rock has filed a motion again to expand racing and practice hours, which has prompted the town Planning and Zoning Commission to respond in a most unusual way. The commission wants to actually incorporate the injunction into the town’s zoning code. If the commission is successful in doing so, in addition to convincing a judge and the town to consider revising the injunction to expand, the track would have to get the town to alter its zoning code as well, which will present an additional hurdle for track owner Skip Barber to clear.
As you can imagine, track officials are apoplectic at what they say is an attempt to further regulate the park’s activities, and they insist that incorporating the injunction into the zoning code is prima facie illegal, while the park’s antagonists say codifying the injunction is “a necessary measure to regulate a major land use.” And I think the residents have a point.
One meme circulating on social media and promulgated by a loudmouthed Texas blogger is that those who want to restrict the park’s operations are little more than “NIMBY neighbors.” It’s a ridiculous assertion, but if you repeat it loudly and often enough, someone is bound to believe it.
Those who purchased their homes in 1959 or later — and as far as I can tell, that’s everyone in the Lime Rock section of Salisbury — did so with the reasonable expectation that their Sundays would at least be peaceful and the number of un-muffled practice days would be strictly limited. And Barber knew that when he bought the park with a group of investors in 1983. Now Lime Rock Park wants to change that.
Furthermore, Lime Rock residents have lived with an auto racing venue in their “back yards” for almost 60 years, so the notion that they’re NIMBY neighbors is easily disproved. No, this is about Lime Rock Park trying to alter the terms of an injunction that both the track and the Lime Rock Protective Association ultimately agreed to not long after the track opened. It’s about neighbors who bought their homes in good faith trying to protect property values that would surely decline in inverse proportion to the park’s expansion.
Both parties are meeting in a conference at Litchfield Superior Court today. This is a gray area of the law, and, even though my house sits five miles away and is relatively protected from the noise, I think you know who I’m rooting for. Go NIMBYs!
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