With threat of lawsuit lingering in room, Richfield delays rezoning decision

Published 8:41 am Tuesday, April 25, 2023

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By Toby Thorpe, for the SNAP

Following spirited and occasionally pointed discussion, a decision on a rezoning request brought to the Richfield Town Commission was delayed during the board’s regular meeting on Monday evening.

At a public hearing preceding the regular meeting, Commissioner of Zoning Barry Byrd explained the request, made by Matthew Mauldin, to rezone a parcel of land in the town’s industrial park from M-1 (Light Industrial) to HB (Highway Business).

“Mr. Mauldin intends to use the parcel for an event center venue,” said Byrd, noting that the proposed zoning would carry more restrictions (such as increased setbacks) than the current light industrial designation.

Commissioner Christy Necaise questioned the timing of the request.

“I’m not against the rezoning, but shouldn’t we wait until our new land use plan and planning board is in place?” she asked.

“In theory, I agree,” replied Byrd, “but the developer (Mauldin) has a deadline on his contract.”

Byrd went on to recommend, given Mauldin’s deadline situation, that the board approve the request, but place a hold on any further rezoning until a new planning board and land use plan could be adopted.

Concerns with the rezoning procedure were expressed by two residents during the hearing.

“This public hearing is premature,” stated Zina Risley, who cited a 2021 ordinance stating that such rezoning matters should first be heard by a planning board.

“You should honor your oath to uphold state law,” she said in closing.

Risley’s husband, John, followed, emphasizing that the zoning ordinance is based on state law.

Later, as commissioners considered whether to approve Mauldin’s request, Byrd moved, and was seconded by commissioner Kevin Almond, that Mauldin’s request be approved.

During the discussion of the motion which followed, Byrd expressed frustration toward a number of residents in attendance who had expressed opposition.

“This crowd sitting over here is bound and determined to sue us,” he said, noting that should a lawsuit be filed over the proposed rezoning, it would divert tax dollars from town services.

“It’s the taxpayers of the town that would have to furnish the money to fight such a lawsuit that would be filed just because we didn’t do something exactly by the book,” Byrd said.

“It boils down to, ‘Does the board want to risk them suing us for doing something that they are saying is state-mandated illegal? Once you bring it up and say it, then we know we’re illegal, so if we vote then they have grounds to take us to court, which is what they’re after anyway,” said Byrd.

After discussion among the commissioners, Byrd withdrew his motion and said he would inform Mauldin that the board would be unable to vote until the matter can be heard by the planning board.

A motion to discuss procedures with the town attorney for appointing a planning board and amending the zoning ordinance was approved by a 4-1 vote, with Almond dissenting.

In other matters, Dr. Michael Riemann, representing Friends of the Falcon Trail, delivered two requests related to development of the trail, one for a bridge installation and one for removal of obstacles to allow for a fence to be erected. Both requests were approved.

The next meeting of the town commission will take place May 22, beginning with a 6 p.m. budget workshop, and followed by a public hearing on planning board and zoning ordinance matters.