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Tyrone sued over gun shop zoning

A group of Tyrone residents have filed suit against the Tyrone Town Council in Fayette County Superior Court in an effort to overturn the recent inclusion of guns shops as a conditional use in commercial zoning districts such as the one situated adjacent to Southampton subdivision where a gun store and indoor shooting range has been proposed for the Southampton Plaza shopping center on Ga. Highway 74.

In a move that addresses a portion of the suit and is intended to ensure that the process is correctly implemented, the Town Council on April 7 said new public hearings will be held relating to technical issues that pertain to the published notification, both in signage and print, that preceded the previous hearings and the eventual passage of the measure that resulted in gun shops being included as a conditional use in the C-2 district.

The suit filed April 2 by attorney Wayne Kendall is appealing the rezoning in March “approving the allowance of a gun shop as a conditional use in a C-2 (Commercial HIghway) zoning district and also the allowance of a shooting range as an accessory use to a gun shop on the subject property and seek(s) a declaratory judgment to declare these rezoning decisions to be a manifest abuse of rezoning power and therefore illegal and void.”

The four counts specified in the suit include violations of the state zoning procedures law, violations of the town’s zoning ordinance, a conflict of interest and potential violation of ethical requirements on the part of a member of the Tyrone Planning Commission and a manifest abuse of zoning power.

The plaintiffs are also appealing the rezoning decision to amend the town’s zoning map that changed the PUD (Planned Unit Development) district to a C-2 and seeks to have the rezoning decision void because it was conducted in violation of state law.

Kendall in the suit noted that as adjacent property owners to the location of the gun shop and shooting range on the south side of the shopping center, those residents will “bear the brunt of the negative impacts from the development” of the property in terms of reduced property values, increased noise, potential lead dispersion throughout the neighborhood and potential intrusions on peace and privacy.

Plaintiffs in the suit include Southampton subdivision residents Leila Richardson, Wayne Mason, Gwendolyn Keyes Fleming, Larry Bennet, Donna Ballard, Natalie Milner, Michelle Williams and Thomas Redd and Southampton Plaza shopping center business owner LaGuana Albarracin.

The suit also notes that proposed gun shop owner Rusty Morris at the March 1 Town Council public hearing stated that a member of the town’s Planning Commission had been hired by his firm to perform engineering design work on the project. That commission member, Chris Wigginton, also participated in the Planning Commission meeting to second two motions to recommend the gun shop rezoning amendments to the Town Council for inclusion in the zoning ordinance, the suit said. Additionally, Mayor Eric Dial said there is no financial disclosure statement on file by Wigginton as to his interest in the rezoning matter, the suit said.

The suit also requests a trial by jury.

Commenting on the suit, a press release from the Tyrone Concerned Citizens group formed after the March 1 vote said “no one objected to a gun shop and shooting range in general but raised concerns about the location based on research and statistical evidence of environmental, noise and safety issues that have arisen when gun shops and shooting ranges have been placed similarly close to neighborhoods in other jurisdictions. Residents told the council they opposed the location because it is only 400 feet from homes, poses a potential environmental hazard and could affect property values.”

Commenting on the suit, Mayor Eric Dial said, “We are aware of the lawsuit that was filed earlier in the week, but we have not had time to fully digest the contents and claims in the lawsuit. So, we’ll be working throughout the day so we can be in a good position to fully comment on the lawsuit itself.  We are working with our attorney now. The Planning Commission and Town Council reviewed the application when we were approached by the gun shop and range. We held public hearings on the matter, in which we heard both opposition and support. At the end of the day, we are dealing with a legal business that desires to locate in an appropriately designated heavy commercial zoning district. Anything short of its approval would be a violation of the constitutional rights of the private property owner.”

It was after the public hearing on March 1 that the council voted to adopt the recently revamped zoning ordinance. Also on the agenda, and approved by a 3-2 vote, was the move to include gun shops as a conditional use in the new C-2 zoning district. That inclusion met with significant public opposition, largely on the grounds that having a gun shop located, as proposed, in the Southampton Plaza shopping center would be too close to the nearby subdivision.

Guns shops had previously not been included in any zoning district category. It was that item that drew significant public comment, with 10 people speaking in favor of the proposal and 18 other opposed.

A large percentage of those opposed to the measure included residents of the nearby Southampton subdivision. Nearly all said they were gun advocates or gun owners and many noted that they had military or law enforcement experience. And nearly all said they supported the idea of having a local gun shop. The problem, they said, was with the intended location on a vacant piece of property directly south of Partners Pizza.

“The issue is the location not the business. The shopping center is a family-oriented place,” said Southampton resident Brenda Richards.

The proposed gun store was said to be 218 feet from the property line and 400 feet from residences. AR Bunker owner Rusty Morris who is proposing to build the gun store said the decibel level will not increase over the current neighborhood traffic level or any air traffic overhead.

Prior to the vote Morris, a former law enforcement officer, said the building would be built from the ground-up to forestall some of the other issues those in opposition had surfaced. The building would be outfitted with a HEPA filter system to prohibit the escape of particulate matter such as lead and will comply with the ordinance requirements for gun shops such as installing a steel, roll-down gate at the entrance, security system and video cameras, concrete-poured walls, bollards in front of the building and operating hours from 10 a.m. until 8 p.m. Morris also noted that gun safety is of prime importance.

The council voted 3-2 on the measure, with Ryan Housley and Ken Matthews opposed and Gloria Furr and Linda Howard in favor. Mayor Eric Dial broke the tie.

Both Housley and Matthews said they had no opposition to guns shops as a conditional use though both had concerns about the location. Housley also said he had needed more information before making a decision.

It is common for groups of people for or against a measure to exit the chambers of any elected body once their issue has been decided. And that was the case on March 1. But it was Phil Seay, owner of the property on which the proposed gun shop would be located, who offered another take on the issue during public comments.

Seay was the former owner of the property on which the Southampton subdivision and the Publix shopping center are now located.

“I was denied zoning in the past. The (Southampton Plaza) shopping center was turned down (by the town). And I had no option but to take it to court and I won,” Seay said.

A public hearing on issues related to the law suit will be held by the Planning Commission on April 26 and will be followed by another public hearing at the Town Council meeting on May 3.

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