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CT Supreme Court rules on race tracks

LIME ROCK — In a decision made public on May 22, the state Supreme Court ruled that town planning and zoning commissions may regulate auto racing tracks. The decision resolves multiple legal actions taken by Lime Rock Park (an auto racing track in the Lime Rock section of Salisbury),  Salisbury’s Planning and Zoning Commission and the Lime Rock Citizen’s Council.

The primary issue: Does a state law allowing auto racing mean that municipalities cannot regulate auto racing within their borders? The state Supreme Court reversed a lower court decision and said that towns may in fact regulate auto racing — including a ban on Sunday racing, such as the one that has existed in Salisbury for decades.

In 2015, Lime Rock Park owner Skip Barber went to court to try to amend a 1959 injunction governing track activities. (The injunction has been modified several times since 1959.) That effort was subsequently put on hold until the state Supreme Court ruled.

Any racing on Sundays had been prohibited by the injunction. The track wanted to add some Sundays to the schedule. 

Also in 2015, the Salisbury Planning and Zoning Commission considered a package of amendments to the town’s zoning regulations concerning the track.

A group of residents who are neighbors of the track formed a group called the Lime Rock Citizens Council to oppose Sunday racing in particular and to lobby for keeping the status quo.

Superior Court decision

In Superior Court Judge John D. Moore’s 97-page “amended memorandum of decision,” released in July 2019, Moore found in favor of the track on the question of Sunday racing, saying that state law allowed for racing on Sundays after noon. However, the injunction prohibiting Sunday racing remained in effect.

The state Supreme Court reversed the 2019 court decision.

After recapping the history of the state law concerning auto racing, the court concluded:

“We cannot perceive why the Legislature would suddenly have concluded in 1998 that it was necessary to impose a uniform statewide rule allowing motor vehicle racing seven days a week, regardless of the character of the area in which the activities take place.”

Reached by phone on Monday, May 25, both Skip Barber and Peter Wolf, a charter member of the Lime Rock Citizen’s Council (LRCC), used the phrase “We’re back where we started” to describe the ruling. Barber said he was disappointed, and Wolf said he and the LRCC were pleased.

Seeking home rule

Salisbury Planning and Zoning Chairman Michael Klemens said in a phone interview May 25 that the commission’s interest was not the same as the LRCC’s, despite public perception to the contrary.

He said from the commission’s perspective, the question was one of “home rule.”

“Who has the authority to regulate the track? That’s us.”

The track did win on a couple of  points: that Saturdays are considered weekdays for regulatory purposes, and Lime Rock Park does not need to ask for an exception to propose amendments to the town’s zoning regulations.

Klemens emphasized that going forward it is the commission’s job to consider the views of all concerned parties, and that the commission is “not in lockstep” with the LRCC.

A history of the discussion

The issues concerning the track have created considerable interest and controversy. 

The citizen group had provided signs against Sunday racing for homeowners to display. Many of the signs were stolen.

The Planning and Zoning public hearing on the 2015 zoning amendments attracted an overflow crowd on two separate evenings, and had to be held in the Salisbury Congregational Church. 

State Rep. Maria Horn (D-64) introduced a bill in January 2019  that would allow local zoning commissions to regulate the times that auto racing may take place. On Feb. 7, another capacity crowd filled the Emergency Services Center in Falls Village to hear Horn explain that the bill was intended to begin a conversation about racing regulations and local control. She said she did not intend to change the status quo. (She subsequently withdrew the bill.) 

And in July 2019, Barber sat with Marshall Miles of WHDD radio (Robin Hood Radio) and cable channel CATV6, and took questions about the future of the track and the litigation.

Barber was asked what would happen to the track if it were to lose major spectator events.

“If we stop doing spectator events, we’re still a race track.” He said the bulk of the track’s income comes from car club events, which require fewer employees and facilities. 

“It will just be about the asphalt, bathrooms and paddocks.”

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