A Johnston County Planning Board hearing on Tuesday will pit a church and athletic association against their neighbors over a ballpark built with taxpayer money but without the proper zoning.
Johnson Memorial Church and the McGee’s Crossroads Athletic Association hope to retroactively re-zone the church-owned ball field, one on which the MCAA has already spent $147,000 in county bond dollars.
But neighbors say the church and MCAA hid their intentions, failing to ask for a zoning change, which would have required a public hearing. The county called that “an oversight.”
Now Ray and Jamone Johnson’s backyard abuts nightly baseball games and soccer practices on land not yet zoned for such uses. And the MCAA is trying to expand the facility.
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“For us, it’s really been a nuisance,” said Jamone Johnson, whose house sits less than 140 feet from the field’s outfield fence. “Stadium lights five nights a week, noise, people trespassing on our property. We feel like victims in our own home.”
Johnson’s nephew, David Penny, who lives across the road from his aunt, has become a vocal critic of the ball field. He points to swaths of public land in the area that could have been used instead. He also says the field doesn’t meet regulations for drainage and handicapped accessibility.
“None of this has been done in compliance from day one,” said Penny, a lieutenant with the Raleigh Fire Department.
Further souring the experience, Penny said, is the letter he received from MCAA treasurer Brian Massengill accusing him of defamation and telling him to cease his criticism.
Massengill did not respond to a call requesting comment, and emails sent to MCAA board members went returned. The church declined comment. Johnson noted that Massengill is related by marriage to two deacons: Gradford Barbour and Richard Gurley, Barbour’s son-in-law. Penny’s father stepped down from the deacon board as the conflict arose.
Penny said he also received a profane, anonymous email attacking his character and calling him a liar for an email he sent to community members outlining his side of the story. His aunt said she’s also heard of some people in the community denigrating the family.
“We’re a prisoner in our own home, and now we’re the villain too,” Johnson said. “People are talking about us by name because we’re ‘trying to close the ball field.’ ”
Penny grew up on the family’s land and played youth baseball in the McGee’s Crossroads community before eventually playing for East Carolina University and being drafted by the Boston Red Sox. He said it’s ridiculous to assert that he’s against the MCAA and its youth leagues. Penny said he has coached several teams in the MCAA as his children played at various levels. He said he’s also donated money.
Penny says he wants to see the league thrive and isn’t trying to get anyone in trouble. He just wishes the MCAA had been open about its plans, which currently include an expanded, multi-field facility. The MCAA controls the fields and pays the church $10 a year in rent.
Penny and Johnson said MCAA leaders approached them a few years ago to say they wanted to use the rarely-used church diamond for T-ball league overflow. A five-year lease with the church was possible, the MCAA said. The family granted its blessing, Penny and Johnson said. But that’s the last time anyone from the MCAA or church reached out to them for their opinion, they said.
By the time the church and MCAA signed an agreement on Sept. 1, 2011, the lease was for 20 years and multiple sports for children up to 10 years old. According to the lease, the MCAA bears responsibility for following all laws and regulations, including anything “which constitutes a nuisance.” The church, meanwhile, “only represents that the property will be zoned properly for lessee’s intended business use,” putting the zoning onus on the church. Six deacons signed the lease.
The church has the right to terminate the lease and reclaim the property in the event of a breach of the lease terms. The MCAA assumes liability for events on the site.
With lease in hand, the MCAA began spending bond money allocated to it by the county from a 2007 bond. Lights were up by spring 2012, Penny said, and Ray Johnson said he “can mow (his) grass at night now.”
“We’ve tried being nice. And see where that’s gotten us,” Ray Johnson said.
A long-term lease was crucial to the county endorsing the MCAA’s spending projects, said County Manager Rick Hester. “We wouldn’t have put improvements there without a long-term lease,” he said.
In addition to lights, the ballpark has a concession stand, among other upgrades.
Penny notes that the nearby middle school field doesn’t have lights and often sits unused. Investing public money there would provide greater benefit, he said, adding that the school field has more parking and no nearby neighbors. He also said landowners nearby have expressed interest in donating land to the MCAA or county.
“I can’t believe that much (public) money was spent on a piece of private property,” he said.
Hester said the failure to hold a rezoning hearing, the one thing that would have alerted neighbors to the ballpark plans, was a simply oversight.
“There was an oversight there on the zoning at the time, so the church and recreation association are going through the zoning process,” he said.
Ray Johnson said Hester told him the county had made a mistake in approving the project without due diligence.
That leaves the county in the position to either grant or deny zoning sought by the landowner and leaseholder – after the leaseholder sank county money into building a ballpark.
The zoning request indicates that the MCAA plans to expand the ballpark to include a soccer field on currently-wooded land, a new T-ball diamond, two small playgrounds and 81 more parking spaces. The request notes that the county did not receive “an official complaint” about the ballpark, though a neighbor had called and visited to air concerns. It also said, “However, (county) staff has spoken with the church and the (MCAA) about the neighbor’s concerns, and both groups voluntarily petitioned in order to comply with zoning.”
Barry Honeycutt, a deacon at Johnson Memorial Church, declined to comment. “We don’t want to comment until the process” plays out, he said.
A letter notifying church members about Tuesday’s zoning hearing seemed to reference Penny’s email without naming it. The letter said, “We do not believe that anyone involved deliberately did anything that raises questions or concerns.”
“We ask for your continued support to help JMC and MCAA move forward,” the letter said. “It is our goal to be able to provide recreational fields and service to the community for years to come.”
The Planning Board will consider the rezoning request when it meets at 6 p.m. Oct. 21 at the courthouse in Smithfield. After the Planning Board hearing, the matter will go before County Commissioners on Dec. 1.