Ask Charles Evers, the mayor of Forest Hills, what powers his tiny government has, and he says, somewhat defensively, that it’s no different than any other city. Actually, the city of Forest Hills has no police or fire powers, doesn’t collect property taxes, has only one full-time public employee, and, with an annual budget of just over $1 million, could barely cover Martha Ingram’s utility bills.
But Forest Hills can and does enforce zoning regulations, and that is at the crux of its rather nasty lawsuit against the Sequoia Club, an unassuming swim and tennis facility on Chickering Lane. Recently filed in chancery court, the lawsuit alleges that the club has violated city regulations.
The Sequoia Club has two swimming pools, a few tennis courts and an athletic playing field. The facilities are serviceable, but in no way elegant; in fact, with large patches of crab grass and a barbed wire fence surrounding the swimming pool, it would be easy to mistake Sequoia for a public facility. About 550 mostly middle-class families belong to the club.
Two years ago, Sequoia added a few makeshift parking spaces to a narrow gravel access road and constructed a modest picnic shed. Neither project was grand in scope, but Forest Hills maintains that the improvements are in violation of the city’s zoning ordinance. Now, after two years of negotiations in which both sides maintain the other is unwilling to budge, the city is suing the club, asking the court to establish its authority to regulate the club on zoning issues. The city is also asking the club to remove its sign and turn over its financial records.
“Personally, I have always felt that reasonable people could resolve these issues in a way that would protect the interests of the club and the interests of the neighborhood and the city,” Forest Hills attorney Jonathan Harwell wrote in a recent letter to the club, serving notice of the lawsuit. “Needless to say, I have been terribly disappointed by the fact that that has not happened.”
Recently, the club board voted overwhelming to defend the city’s lawsuit, even though legal expenses are expected to climb upward of $100,000. At stake, they say, is the club’s fate. “While we want to be good neighbors, we must preserve the ability of Sequoia to continue to exist as a swim and tennis club,” says club president Larry Peterman. “Forest Hills has refused to be reasonable, even on minor points.”
In fact, the club essentially concedes that it violated the city’s zoning ordinance. Two summers ago, when it added nearly 20 parking spaces on its gravel service drive, the city informed the club that such an expansion violated Forest Hills’ regulations. The club president at the time, Jim Anderson, wrote the city back, saying that, given the property’s boundaries, it would be impossible for the club to expand its parking under the city’s ordinance.
Anderson asked that the parking additions be approved as a nonconforming use. Alternatively, Anderson offered to return the parking area to its original state. The club, however, was apparently bluffing, because when the city’s commissioners voted to accept Anderson’s alternate proposal, the club did nothing. Nearly two years later, the parking additions remain in place, a visible affront to the city’s authority. The lawsuit demands that the club put the toothpaste back in the tube.
“We wouldn’t have filed the lawsuit if we didn’t think we were right,” Mayor Evers says.
Of course, being right and being sensible are not always the same. Forest Hills officials were also rankled when the club constructed a modest picnic shed that probably couldn’t keep more than 20 people dry in the event of rain. Sequoia’s offense? The club never asked for a building permit.
“I didn’t know that we needed a permit,” says past club president Joe Dughman, who gamely admits that the shed was constructed during his administration. “And I still don’t know if we need one.”
In the lawsuit, the city asks that the club be prohibited from using its shed until it gets a building permit, even though it is already built.
Forest Hills and Sequoia have a long history of animosity dating back to 1957. At the time, the commissioners of the newly formed city of Forest Hills established as their first ordinance that no business or recreational clubs be allowed to exist in their enclave. Sequoia, however, was already in the process of developing its 8.9-acre site and soon notified the city that it was going to build the club with or without the commissioners’ approval. The city sued the club and lost.
Sequoia’s lawyer, Wesley D. Turner, plans to file an answer to the lawsuit within weeks. For now, though, members suggest that the club will maintain that because the club was in existence before the city, it’s not subject to the zoning ordinance. Anticipating that legal argument, Forest Hills officials maintain that while the club was in existence before the city, it was not in operation at that time. (Somewhere, somebody went to law school for this.)
“Sequoia predates the city of Forest Hills,” says Peterman, the club president. “Sequoia’s right to operate has already been approved by court decisions.” While the club’s activities have engendered a few complaints from local neighbors, many of the people who live around Sequoia belong to the club. Some club members say the city wants to enforce its ordinance just because it can, while others say that Forest Hills wants to regulate the club right out of existence.
“They choose to litigate the matter,” says past president Dughman, a personal injury lawyer, who’s running for a spot on the club’s board. “Now that they have made that decision, we will defend it. And we think the lawsuit is without merit.”
Mayor Evers would not say whether the club’s additions have eroded the quality of life in the satellite city, although the lawsuit does allege that the club generates an unacceptable level of traffic. The mayor insists, however, that he and his fellow commissioners are not trying to put the club out of business.
“The Sequoia Club has told its members that we’re trying to eliminate them, and that’s not true,” he says.
So then why go to court over parking spaces and a picnic shed? Apparently the club’s practice of asking for forgiveness instead of permission has irritated the city’s leadership for the last time. “These are small items,” he concedes. “But when you talk to them and get zero response for so long, you have to do something to protect yourself. We have tried and tried and tried to work this out.”
This is exactly why we have juries.
No, justice was not served. Had she been executed swiftly, justice would have been served…
Naw man, it's the court of public opinion that counts. Ask George Zimmerman about that,…
@Tom Wood: It's doubtful Manning will equal George Blanda's longevity. Blanda was even a pretty…
And furthermore, we don't try cases based on what the news reports. We try them…