A court hearing last week pitted a retired couple against a youth sports group and a church.
Now Superior Court Judge Tom Lock will decide whether Johnston County Commissioners acted legally when they retroactively rezoned a church-owned ball field so youth leagues could continue playing there.
Retired state employees Ray and Jamone Johnson said legal action was their last resort. The McGee’s Crossroads couple had hoped to spend their retirement years in piece and quiet in their home of more than 35 years. Instead, actively used ball fields are 50 feet from their back door.
The Johnsons say stadium lights shine into their living room until 9 p.m. multiple nights a week as youth baseball, softball and soccer teams take to the fields behind their home. And the Johnsons say they hear noise from foot and car traffic, cheering fans, whistle-blowing referees and the P.A. system.
The Johnsons say they have lost their privacy and their bucolic backyard views. And they claim storm water from the elevated ball fields runs into their done.
To make matters worse, the Johnsons say, they recently paid for an appraisal that showed their land’s value had fallen because of recent improvements that the McGee’s Crossroads Athletic Association made to the church-owned ball fields.
A few years ago, the athletic association, or MCAA, leased land from Johnson Memorial Church to provide ball fields for the growing McGee’s Crossroads community. The Johnsons say the church told them the athletic association would use the fields only for overflow T-ball games and only for a few years. The Johnsons said that was fine with them.
But by 2012, stadium lighting had gone up, and the MCAA had greatly expanded its use of the church-owned property with about $145,000 in county bond dollars. The church and athletic association extended the lease to 20 years after the MCAA learned it could get money from the county bond issue for parks and recreation. In Johnston, county government offers no recreation programs; instead, it gives money to nonprofits that apply for it.
But with greater ball field use came complaints from residential neighbors, and eventually, someone discovered that the church had never sought nor received the rezoning needed for ball fields. A rezoning request would have required a public hearing, which would have given neighbors a chance to voice concerns and county commissioners a chance to place restrictions on the fields’ use.
County Manager Rick Hester took responsibility for the oversight that allowed the ball fields to operate without proper zoning.
A year ago, county commissioners held a belated hearing and rezoned the land for ball field use. They did, however, place a number of curbs on the fields in a bid to reduce the trespassing and noise and light pollution for neighbors.
The MCAA had one year to comply with the county restrictions, which included planting an evergreen buffer, adding fencing, seeking ways to make the stadium lights less bright and ending Saturday games by 2 p.m. However, when the Johnsons sued in February to overturn the commissioners’ rezoning decision, the MCAA stopped making the required changes.
Brian Massengill, the association’s treasurer, said the MCAA put up a fence but is waiting on the court’s decision before spending anymore money.
“It’s a substantial investment of money for the buffering,” he said. “But we are prepared to do the buffering requirements immediately.”
While the association doesn’t agree with all of the stipulations commissioners made, it will abide by them, Massengill said.
Ideally, Jamone Johnson said, she would like for the MCAA to move its games to ball fields elsewhere. If that can’t happen, she wants to see more buffering with trees.
“The lights are too much,” Johnson said. “We didn’t want to be negative against the church or the community. If it would have just been T-ball in corner of the field, that would be fine.”
“It’s just a shame,” she added.
The Johnsons were members of the church before the land dispute began. And Massengill currently attends the church.
The Rev. Chris Searles, the church’s pastor, attended last week’s court hearing. He said the dispute had been tough to navigate.
“It’s not our goal to upset or divide,” Searles said. “We never saw this happening, but we respect and love all those involved.”