Dragstrip opponents make some noise

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By John Barnhart

Some neighbors of the New London Airport and Dragstrip say that they don't like the dragstrip's noise.

Last fall, Al Stroobants and some of his neighbors filed a complaint with George Nester, the county's director of planning and the county's zoning administrator. The airport and dragstrip are non-conforming uses in an area zoned AP (agricultural preserve). The facility is grandfathered because it was already there when the zoning ordinance was adopted in 1998. Stroobants alleges that it has forfeited its grandfathered status because it has substantially increased the number of races being held.

Nester determined that activity at the dragstrip did not violate that status and wrote a letter to Stroobants stating this last fall. According to Nester, there has been no change in the non-conforming use's character. Stroobants, in turn, appealed Nester's decision to the board of zoning appeals.

The board of zoning appeals consists of seven members appointed by the Bedford County Circuit Court. This board hears appeals to decisions made by the zoning administrator and can overturn a decision. According to County Attorney Carl Boggess, zoning administrator decisions are presumed to be correct and the burden of proof rests with the person appealing the decision.

A hearing was held on Jan. 22.

According to William Diplinger, one of two attorneys representing Stroobants at the hearing, Stroobants has lived on property adjoining the Airport since 1968. He argued that the airport is the principal use of the site and the dragstrip is an incidental use. His client is only challenging the dragstrip.

Stroobants said that he presented a petition signed by him and 68 other neighbors complaining about the dragstrip. He argued that non-conforming activities can't be expanded indefinitely.

According to Stroobants, the dragstrip formerly ran races four or five times per year and that could be tolerated. He added that he had an agreement with the dragstrip limiting the number of races to eight per year. He said that he met with the dragstrip owner last year and was told that the number of races had been increased to 15 because racing is a money-maker and that there would be 20 races in 2008.

Stroobants also claimed that the races now start earlier. He said that, in the past, they started at noon. Now they start at 11 a.m. and he can often hear loud engine noises at 9 a.m. with noise lasting until 8 p.m. He said the noise is so bad on race days that he has to take guests to another place to have conversations.

"I urge you to protect our neighborhood," Stroobants said.

"We would like to have Sunday as a day of peace to be with our families," said Roger Bowles. Bowles said that he is not opposed to the dragstrip, but is opposed to the increased schedule.

Mike Sommers said that he can hear every word the announcer says over the dragstrip loudspeaker on race days.

"I, too, can hear all the words on the loudspeaker, " said John Mitchell, who lives a mile-and-a-half from the dragstrip. He said that he has to take his family elsewhere on Sunday because of the engine noise and loudspeaker.

Thomas Thornton said that Rucker Tibbs built the dragstrip to keep kids from drag racing on the highways. This, he said, was fine with the neighbors, but the new owner wants to pay for purchasing the property with a business that doesn't fit the neighborhood. He also said that his proposal to build a subdivision there was denied because it would ruin the character of the neighborhood.

Others painted a different picture.

"I have no problem with it because they built it years before I built my house," said Charles Drew, who lives two miles from the dragstrip.

Drew said that he owns a farm that is in an area zoned R-2 (low density residential). The farm was grandfathered when the zoning ordinance was adopted in 1998. Since then, he has expanded the number of cows he has from three to 50. Drew said that opposition to the dragstrip makes him worry that some neighbors could complain about his farm and make it lose its grandfathered status.

"I knew the dragstrip was there when I bought it [his house] in 1992," said David Cox, who lives a mile-and-a-half from the dragstrip.

Terry Hollingsworth said that he is a real estate agent and broker, and has been in the business for 37 years. He disputed dragstrip opponents' contention that the dragstrip has a negative impact on property values in the area.

"It is not true that property values are lower in the dragstrip vicinity," he said.

Hollingsworth said that he recalls that the dragstrip was once much busier than it now is. He said that there was a race every weekend in 1963.

The distance covered by a race has been reduced from a quarter-mile to an eighth, noted David Underwood. The dragsters that now run are lower powered cars than those that ran in years past.

"That's all hogwash about the noise," he said, adding that 60 percent of all cars now have mufflers.

"It is not true that there is more going on now than then," he said.

He recalled that once he built a house, but discovered that his neighbor had three dogs that barked constantly. He didn't like that, and sold the house. Hollingsworth suggested that the neighbors, who don't like the dragstrip, do the same.

Cheryl Miller, who has been involved with the airport and dragstrip since 1985, disputed Stroobants' contention that he had an agreement limiting the number of races. She said that she and Tibbs, who owned the facility at the time, met with Stroobants in 1987. She said that Stroobants authorized them to take water from a lake on his property to use in eight events each year. The agreement limited only the number of times they could access the lake, not the total number of races they could hold. Tibbs sold the facility to Kevin Murray in 2005.

Others testified that the dragstrip is actually quieter now than it was when Stroobants first bought the adjoining property. Danny Morgan, who has frequented the dragstrip since 1961, said that the dragstrip formerly hosted jet drag racers. He said that just two of these cars make more noise than all the dragsters, currently at the dragstrip, combined. Morgan said the dragstrip hosted eight races per year in the '80s.

"This thing has been going on for 50 years, " he said.

Boggess questioned the tactic Stroobants' attorneys used to make the dragstrip and airport separate issues. He said the dragstrip started in 1957 and the airport came in in 1961.

"They are dual uses," Boggess said. "There is nothing in law that says you can't have a dual use."

Members of the board of zoning appeals also questioned the attorney's approach. Derrick Noell questioned which is louder, an airplane or a drag racer. He also questioned whether the frequency of flights in and out of the airport has changed. Becky Wuergler wondered if Stroobants wanted a restriction on which days aircraft could fly.

Ed Wennerstrom expressed doubt that Stroobants had an agreement limiting the number of races per year to eight. He noted that races involving jet dragsters on a dirt track would not require water. These dragsters would not need to have the surface dampened in order to get traction.

Wuergler also questioned the attorney's reference to 1989 as a base date from which activity at the dragstrip should be measured. Bedford County adopted a system called Land Use Guidance System (LUGS) that year, but didn't adopt traditional zoning until 1998. The AP zoning came in with the 1998 zoning ordinance. LUGS, Boggess noted, was a very different animal.

"In '89, there was no agricultural preserve," Wuergler said, noting that the county is now under the 1998 ordinance.

Boggess said that the number of races held at the track has varied between 10 and 20 races per season over the years. It's the historic usage that must be taken into account, he noted.

The board of zoning appeals agreed that Stroobants had not met the burden of proof necessary to overturn Nester's decision. They voted unanimously to uphold it.