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Chancellor: Looking for balance in race track dispute

By By Suzanne Monk / managing editor
Sept. 22, 2002
Inside the city limits of places like Meridian, there are rules about what you can do with your property or on it.
Local zoning ordinances attempt to keep residential areas and commercial areas separated. Noise ordinances give people who are trying to sleep the right to call the police if your birthday party gets out of hand.
Out in the county, it's a different story. With the exception of a few narrowly worded state laws that place regulations on building things like chicken houses, you can pretty much do whatever you like…
Until your activities significantly diminish your neighbor's ability to enjoy his property as much as you are enjoying yours. How much is too much? At what point have you encroached on his rights as a property owner?
Defining that line is the subject of a lawsuit in Lauderdale County Chancery Court where 16 residents of the Arundel community have squared off against Thomas Riley, owner of Queen City Speedway.
What the angry
neighbors want
The Arundel residents bringing suit want the race track shut down, and they want Chancellor Sarah Springer to award damages so that they can make repairs to their property.
They are represented by William E. Ready Jr. of the Ready Law Firm.
Over a three-day period last week, most of the neighbors testified. They complained about the roar of the race car engines, increased traffic, red dust settling on houses and silting up ponds.
They say they are virtual prisoners in their own houses on race nights, unable to enjoy the serenity of what was, until three years ago, a peaceful rural setting.
Many kept logs noting that the Saturday night races have sometimes gone on until as late as 2:45 a.m. on Sunday although they admitted that was not the norm.
Ready had not finished presenting his witnesses when the court ran out of time. After being delayed as mediation attempts were made, and the opposing attorney was called up for Guard duty, the case has been re-set one final time.
When it resumes on Jan. 7, 2003, an expert witness who measured noise levels at different homes near the track will testify about his findings.
Ready's last witness is expected to be a local real estate appraiser who will testify that the raceway has lowered property values in the area.
The race track
owner's position
Construction of the speedway began in February 1999, and the first races were held in June 1999.
Riley says he and his son, Todd, conducted an informal survey around the neighborhood before committing to the venture. While Thomas Riley owns the land, it is Todd Riley who actually operates the speedway.
Only a couple of the plaintiffs say Thomas or Todd Riley spoke with them, but attorney Greg Malta of Bourdeaux and Jones says the Rileys didn't really need anyone's permission.
While Malta has yet to begin presenting Riley's defense, he says it will boil down to two basic points. First, Riley has not broken any laws. There are no state statutes, zoning ordinances or private covenants that forbid him to build a race track.
In his second line of defense, Malta will argue that to shut the speedway down, the neighbors must show that the enjoyment of their property has been significantly decreased. It's a matter of degree.
Races are run one night a week, on Saturday, between March and October with the exception of two special two-night weekends. Malta said the races last between five and six hours. Somewhere between 500 and 1,500 people attend, Malta said, and the traffic does cause delays.
He also points out Riley has invested about $300,000 in the track and that it provides good, clean family entertainment.
What's next?
While juries are sometimes seated in Chancery Court trials, that is not the case here. Judge Springer will be the final arbiter of who's right.
Three more days, Jan. 7-9, have been set aside for Ready to finish his case, and for Malta to present Riley's defense. The judge will then consider the evidence for however long she feels appropriate before issuing her ruling.