Judge rules in favor of Phenix City in Dobbs Drive zoning dispute

jmustian@ledger-enquirer.comOctober 26, 2012 

A visiting judge Friday ruled against a group of Dobbs Drive homeowners who challenged Phenix City's zoning ordinance, likely clearing the way for construction of a controversial apartment complex across from Central High School.

Three neighbors took the city to court last month, accusing the Phenix City Council of skirting its own protocol and attacking the constitutionality of a provision that allows the city to waive certain zoning regulations when approving Planned Residential Districts. The plaintiffs, citing property value and quality of life concerns, objected to council allotting 20 undeveloped acres for the Central Forest Development, a project that includes plans for a 136-unit apartment complex.

A divided council approved those plans in February, annexing a swath of J. Fletcher Findlater's property and waiving a requirement in place at the time that such residential districts exceed 40 acres. City officials said they were on solid legal ground because the waiver provision was clearly outlined in the ordinance.

Judge Christopher J. Hughes of Lee County Circuit Court agreed, ruling council acted "reasonably and fairly" in examining the impact the apartments might have on crime and traffic in an otherwise quiet neighborhood. The city's efforts included a study that determined traffic would not be significantly affected and an analysis of crime statistics that revealed no previous correlation between apartment complexes and increased crime in adjacent communities.

"The decision by the city council to approve the zoning ordinances was not arbitrary or capricious," Hughes concluded in a four-page order.

Councilmembers quickly hailed the court ruling as a vindication of one of their most controversial decisions. Councilman Jimmy Wetzel maintained construction of the apartments had been inevitable, and that the city was best served by annexing the property to gain a degree of control over the complex and an increased tax base.

"I felt confident all along that the city followed every aspect of the legal process and that the city, including the City Council, took into consideration what was in the best interests of all the people of Phenix City," Wetzel said. "I would suspect that's the end of it."

Findlater had no comment on the development, and the city's attorney, Ronald G. Davenport, also declined to comment Friday.

The plaintiffs' attorney, Richard L. Chancey, said he would speak with his clients about a potential appeal. Chancey had sought to convince Hughes that his clients were denied due process and equal protection because council enjoyed an unpredictable, "carte blanche" discretion over zoning decisions.

"I thought we had a pretty good case and thought we proved our point, but obviously we didn't convince the judge," Chancey said. "We knew it was an uphill battle. It's tough to have a court overturn what a legislative body does."

Indeed, Hughes, in his ruling, referred to case law that says it's "well-settled that the courts must apply a highly deferential standard" in reviewing zoning decisions.

Municipal ordinances are presumed valid and reasonable, he added, and shouldn't be struck down unless proven to be clearly arbitrary and unreasonable.

One of the plaintiffs, Jason Long, said in a telephone interview that he had no regrets over the legal challenge, suggesting the Dobbs Drive dispute had drawn a more favorable verdict in the court of public opinion and persuaded many of his neighbors to voice their disapproval at the polls.

Outgoing Councilwoman Michelle E. Walker disappointed dozens of constituents when she voted with Wetzel's majority bloc and against the will of the neighborhood, which wanted no part of the apartments.

"When I go to bed at night," Long said, "I know that this issue was a major catalyst in removing one of the most questionable city councils of my lifetime."

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