Smithfield Herald

Board backs ball field

Jamone Johnson, with husband Ray by her side, tells the Johnston County Planning Board that a church-owned ball field in their backyard is a nuisance.
Jamone Johnson, with husband Ray by her side, tells the Johnston County Planning Board that a church-owned ball field in their backyard is a nuisance.

The Johnston Planning Board on Tuesday said County Commissioners should rezone church-owned land on which an athletic association has already built a baseball diamond with county bond dollars.

In front a crowd that spilled over from a meeting room into a hallway, the board voted 5-2 to back a rezoning request from Johnson Memorial Church and the McGee’s Crossroads Athletic Association, or MCAA. By the same margin, the board backed a special-use permit for the ball field, which is already in operations. The dissenters in both votes were Russell Creech and Allan DeLaine.

During a nearly two-hour hearing, backers of the rezoning request and special-use permit argued that the ball field gives community children a place to play. They argued too that the MCAA needs the field to continue its games.

Opponents, meanwhile, said the MCAA never told them the extent of its planned operations, and they said the ball field was disrupting their lives.

Martha C. Bordogna, an attorney for the MCAA, noted that the ball field’s lights go off at 9 p.m.

The MCAA is three years into a 20-year lease on the church-owned field. Barry Honeycutt, a deacon at Johnson Memorial, said that when the lease with MCAA came before the church board back in 2011, it won unanimous approval.

“I think the McGee’s Crossroads Athletic Association and Johnson board are interested in what’s best for the community,” Honeycutt said. “We feel like it’s been a very positive situation for the community.”

Jill Parker, a lifelong resident of McGee’s Crossroads, told the Planning Board that the community is growing and that its children need more places to play.

“We need these fields for these kids,” she said. “Without these fields, these kids have nowhere else to go. I have a baby growing up, and one day she will play there.”

David Penny of McGee’s Crossroads was the main spokesman for the opposing side. A lifelong baseball player and former MCAA coach, Penny played at East Carolina University before being drafted by the Boston Red Sox organization. Penny said he’s all for a baseball field for kids but doesn’t understand why the church’s field has to be the one.

He wondered why the MCAA wasn’t using and expanding ball fields at nearby McGee’s Crossroads Middle School. “I’d hate to see more money get spent out here on this small little piece of land that could go towards planting the seed for the future, an absolute provision of youth fields and something that could be nice and used in conjunction with the school fields that were already there,” Penny said.

Johnston school board chairman Larry Strickland was at the meeting. He said no one has ever approached him asking to partner for more use of the school’s ball fields. But Strickland said he would be happy to hear them out.

“Whatever we can do, we stand to help bring this community back together,” he said.

But Strickland acknowledged that the schools have no money to light the fields at McGee’s Middle. “That money has got to come from somewhere else, or we’ve got to put a plan in place to try to light these ball fields,” he said. “We’ll do what we can to serve the children of McGee’s Crossroads.”

County Commissioner DeVan Barbour, noting that Penny was a onetime supporter of the field, asked him what happened to change his mind. Penny said he became suspicious when MCAA members told him they were planning to add more to the field. He wonders where that money is coming from, he said.

“When it smells fishy, you go fishing,” Penny said.

Penny’s aunt and uncle, Jamone and Ray Johnson, are the people closest to the ball field. Their house is about 140 feet from the field’s outfield fence.

Ray Johnson said the MCAA approached him, his wife and Penny a few years ago to tell them the group wanted to use the church land for T-ball overflow; a five-year lease was possible. The family said OK.

Johnson said that was the last time anyone from the MCAA talked to the family. A few years and a 20-year lease later, she and her husband are prisoners in their own home, Jamone Johnson said. They have to close their blinds even when it’s dark outside because of light from the fields.

“There (are) not many Saturdays where I have the opportunity to sleep late, and those that I do, I’ve been awakened by the blaring radio from the concession stand,” she said.

The noise and lack of privacy have stressed her to the point where she’s had to seek medical attention, Jamone Johnson said.

“All these other people supporting the ball field get to go home, to a home, a safe haven that’s been taken away from us,” she said.

Planning Board chairman Skip Browder asked Bordogna, the MCAA attorney, whether the two sides had met to talk. Bordogna pointed to a question-and-answer session and to an April 2011 church board meeting that was open to the public.

“We really believe this is a great opportunity for the health and really the welfare of the community,” Bordogna said.

Under the terms of the proposed special-use permit, the MCAA could start Saturday games no earlier than 8:30 a.m. and end them no later than 7 p.m. Also, the MCC would have to evaluate its lighting, with the goal of reducing the impact on neighbors, and music would be limited to the National Anthem.

The MCAA’s lease with the church holds the athletic association responsible for activity at the field, meaning it has to avoid doing anything “that constitutes as a nuisance.” The church is responsible for making sure the land is properly zoned.

Once it signed the lease in September 2011, the MCAA started using bond money to make improvements. In total, the MCAA spent $147,000 in county bond money on the field, even though it didn’t have the right zoning. County Manager Rick Hester said that was an oversight.

“We started getting some concerns back in June of this year, and that’s when we realized the zoning needed to be corrected,” Hester said. “And so it’s one of those things, if it hadn’t been brought to our attention, it could have gone on without us realizing.”

State statutes allow recreational uses near residential developments, according to a planning staff report on the rezoning case. Of the 25 ball field and court facilities in Johnston County, all but two have residences nearby, the staff’s assessment found.

County Commissioners will discuss rezoning the field at their Dec. 1 meeting.