Commonwealth Journal

March 14, 2014

Potter is cross with City Council

Balks at paying fee for application to erect giant crucifix on U.S. 27

by Heather Tomlinson
Commonwealth Journal

Somerset —

Somerset officials heard again this week from a Tennessee man hoping to build a large cross within city limits. 
During Monday’s Somerset City Coun-cil meeting, James Potter, of Helen-wood, Tenn., said he continues to try to work through the planning and zoning process in hopes of constructing a 60-foot-tall cross on private property near South U.S. 27 between lights 11 and 12. 
“My prayer is we that get that cross up,” said Potter.
Potter appeared during a February city council meet-ing, during which he was told that all requests to build within the city limits must go through the city’s Planning and Zoning Department — an entity separate from city council. 
On Monday, Potter said he attempted to put his application in but was turned down.
Somerset Mayor Eddie Girdler and City of Somerset Attorney Carrie Wiese said the application has yet to be processed because it requires an application fee. 
Potter said he was told to pay $375 — an amount determined by the cost of the project — but that the fee was for an appeal, not to process the application. 
“I’m sorry if you understood it that way sir, but nothing has been turned down yet,” said Wiese. 
Potter said the proposed project will cost around $40,000. He expressed some concern about filing the application fee without knowing whether the project would be approved. 
“I want approval before I do,” said Potter. “I’m not going to spend my money for nothing.” 
Girdler said everyone who files applications must submit a fee, regardless of whether the project is approved. 
The city’s Planning and Zoning Department oversees community development and construction. Certain geographic areas, or zones, are restricted to certain uses and development, such as industrial, light industrial, commercial, light commercial, agricultural, single-family residential, multi-unit residential, parks, and schools, among others. That’s according to information on the department provided at the city’s website: 
Ordinances and regulations outline standards such as building height, bulk, lot area, setbacks, parking, signage, and density, according to information provided through the city’s website.
Potter during the February meeting asked if the council could intervene if his request is turned down. Girdler said councilors don’t oversee the department’s actions unless a zoning change is requested. 
Girdler reiterated that point on Monday. 
“The city council at this point does not get into a discussion getting into the merits of (the application process) .. we’re circumventing the process and we cannot do that by state law,” said Girdler. 
Wiese has said that, should the cross not meet Planning and Zoning regulations, Potter can actually file for a special variance permit to construct the cross should it not meet planning and zoning standards. 
“If it won’t work under the ordinance as it’s written, there are things he (Potter) can do to request a variance,” said Wiese in February. “It’s a permit to do something that would otherwise be forbidden under the ordinances.”
If the Planning and Zoning Department turns Potter’s project down, he can appeal in court. 
Potter said he has taken some of his cases to federal court.
“But I don’t want to threaten,” said Potter. “ ... My determination is to build a cross.”
Councilor Jerry Burnett asked Potter to follow the application process through.
“Let’s follow the procedure Mr. Potter. ... If it comes before the council and if you appeal it, maybe we can look at it then,” said Burnett.
Potter said he would submit the application fee. 
Girdler said city officials would do their best to ensure Potter understands the application process. 
“We want to make sure that ... our system works for you and not against you,” said Girdler. “We do apologize if we’ve not done what we should have done as far as following through the process. We’ll make sure that’s done, sir.”