Editorial: Lack of home rule limits powers of Limestone County Commission

The News Courier Editorial Board

The Limestone County Commission heard Monday from a group of residents who are concerned about what’s being built on property adjacent to theirs.

Commissioners tend to be sympathetic when such concerns are aired at public meetings. In September 2017, a group of residents from the Capstone subdivision on Mooresville Road came to bend commissioners’ ears about a storage unit development being built nearby.

In both circumstances, property owners voiced concerns about how their property values would be affected. In Monday’s case, residents were concerned by the prospect of duplexes diminishing the value of their $300,000-plus homes.

Anyone who purchases a home wants to protect his or her investment. After all, a home is usually the most expensive purchase in a person’s lifetime. Depending on the value of your home, anything being built nearby would naturally be a concern.

One thing is for certain, Limestone County is growing by leaps and bounds. Part of the reason for that growth is you can simply get more for your money here. Most of the homes built in the eastern part of the county, where these two groups of concerned citizens reside, are 3,000 square feet or larger with all the latest amenities. In a big city like New York or Los Angeles, such a large home would cost $1 million or more.

There is plenty of available land in Limestone County, and the building will continue. Developers, however, will be building all modes of housing — mansions, bungalows, patio homes, town homes, duplexes and even apartments.

Prospective home owners with pockets full of cash would be wise to do their homework before buying in Limestone County, however. Limestone is one county, but it includes six different municipalities — Ardmore, Athens, Elkmont, Decatur, Huntsville and Madison.

If you are a property owner in unincorporated parts of Limestone County, it is essentially the wild west. There is no governing body that will dictate what you do with your private property as long as you’re not endangering the public’s health. If your property violates local and state health codes, the Alabama Department of Public Health can issue citations, but the Limestone County Commission has zero authority when it comes to what a property owner does with his or her property. Zero.

Because of Limestone County’s rapid growth, many new residents are unaware of the home rule debates that raged in the mid-2000s. If Limestone had home rule — the legal power to make its own rules — the commission would have the power to zone areas to prevent or restrict quarries, landfills, hog confinements or other facilities.

The following excerpt is from a report that ran in this newspaper after a federal judge ruled against Limestone County in a lawsuit filed against Rogers Group. The decision ultimately allowed Rogers Group to continue operating a rock quarry on Laughmiller Road in the Tanner community.

“… Limestone voters distrust the notion of home rule, fearing the county would tell them when to cut their grass or limit the number of junk cars they could amass on their property. The last time the county requested the power of home rule, 64 percent of voters rejected it. Had commissioners had home rule, they could have rezoned the areas of the megasite, wildlife area, robotics center and schools to prevent a quarry.”

If you have a road that needs patching, call the Commission. If a road is failing, call the Commission. If you run over a huge pothole, call the Commission.

If you live in a $600,000 house and the guy who owns the empty lot next to yours decides he wants to put a dilapidated shack on his property, don’t call the Commission. There’s absolutely nothing it can do about it legally, unless the dilapidated shack is violating the health code.

The only caveat would be if you live in a developed subdivision with a functioning homeowner’s association and covenants that would prohibit — or strongly disapprove of — dilapidated shacks.

As County Engineer Marc Massey told concerned residents Monday, the county’s primary responsibility where land is concerned is to make sure there is proper road frontage and that sewer or septic service is available. The commission cannot legally stop a development unless there are legitimate public health concerns.

Those considering buying in Limestone County should also consider that unless the home was built in parts of the county zoned for Decatur, Huntsville, Madison or Athens, there was no inspection performed to ensure it met code standards, including structural, interior electrical and plumbing. Limestone County does not have an inspections department.

Athens Utilities will ensure power and natural gas are being properly run to the home (if gas is available), but beyond that, it is incumbent on the homebuyer to have home inspections performed as builders are held to only their own code of standards.

There are some property buyers and home buyers who are well aware of the county’s lack of rules and regulations regarding properly development, and some wouldn’t have it any other way. As with any large purchase, prospective property owners may want to consider the pros and cons of county living where there is no law or inspections.

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