LAKEVILLE — The fate of whether spectators will continue to enjoy high-performance racing at Lime Rock Park is now in the hands of the state Supreme Court.
Skip Barber, the owner of the 1.5-mile track in scenic Salisbury, the town’s Planning and Zoning Commission and a citizens council have been embroiled in a four-year legal battle over whether racing should be allowed on Sundays.
Each separate appeal to the state Supreme Court on various aspects of a Superior Court judge’s ruling to allow racing on Sundays issued in July 2018. The same judge agreed with the zoning commission that the park should be required to file a site plan and special permit so that town officials can provide residents with information when requested.
The justices heard arguments in the appeals during a marathon three-hour session Wednesday morning.
The zoning commission and the Lime Rock Citizens Council are appealing the Sunday races, while Barber is appealing the judge’s interpretation of state noise regulations.
If the citizens council and the zoning commission win their appeal, overturning his right to race on Sunday, Barber said he’ll stop hosting professional races altogether.
Attorney Tim Hollister, representing the citizens council contends that since the park has been operating under an injunction barring Sunday racing since 1959, it’s a breach of contract to now expand to Sundays.
But Justice Maria Araujo Kahn appeared to disagree with that logic during Wednesday’s session.
“Are you saying because they choose not to exercise their right (to race on Sundays) that you believe they have waived that right?” Araujo Kahn said. “Your position is that the injunction is a contractual agreement?”
Much of the arguments centered on whether Saturday was considered a weekday under the state law that allows racing events and whether the town had a right to prohibit the races even though state law says they are allowed.
“You have to look at the statute in relation to other statutes,” Attorney Charles Anders representing the zoning commission told the justices. “The other statutes grant the authority to towns the right to regulate.”
The track is considered home to area drivers, including Westport’s Academy Award-winning actor and charitable entrepreneur Paul Newman who made it a point to take his last few laps on the course a few days before he died in 2008.
“He was gone within a week” after taking the spin on the track where he frequently raced, said Ray Zisa, who teaches high-performance driving and races at Lime Rock. “He loved that place.”
The park is used regularly by car clubs throughout the region for high-performance driving programs, Barber said. But it’s the high-speed professional racing that occurs three times a year that brings in the crowds from out of town, he said.
“The park would still be used, but there wouldn’t be any spectators,” Barber said. “Without the professional events, there wouldn’t be any spectators going to restaurants or hotels.”
Established in 1957, the track predates Salisbury zoning regulations but has operated under a court injunction, which prohibits racing on Sundays since 1959, court documents said. The park and area residents first went to the state Supreme Court in 1966 to modify the injunction, adding a prohibition of “unmufflered” racing. Another amendment in 1988 allowed unmufflered races on certain days, including summer holidays.
Barber, who has owned the park since 1983, was able to work around the Sunday prohibition by staging professional races on Fridays and Saturdays. But racing has changed since 1959, he said.
“You could do half-hour races on Fridays and Saturdays, but now the races are much longer and you can’t get as many in in one day,” Barber said.
In 2015, he created a proposal seeking to stage races two or three Sundays a year in exchange for cutting down on the number of “unmuffled” events. But the plan touched off a zoning review of regulations and a feud that will now be settled by the state’s highest court.
Area residents, including the Trinity Episcopal Church of Lime Rock and the Lime Rock Cemetery Improvement Association, had managed to broker a peace with the park in the five proceeding decades, Hollister said.
“They were perfectly content to have the status quo remain,” Hollister said. “They are opposed to the track’s plan to expand racing on Sundays and more hours.”
The Planning and Zoning Commission also contends through its attorney Charles Anders that its members were fine with the racing and would have even considered an expansion with a special permit process. The question before the state Supreme Court in their appeal is whether towns have the right to regulate Sunday racing, Anders said.
Superior Court Judge John D. Moore concluded that Lime Rock had a right, according to state law, to race on Sundays, Andres said.
“We’re contending that we have a right to regulate racing on Sundays,” Anders said. “The argument is that statute preempts local zoning and that’s a local concern.”
Barber is challenging Moore’s ruling that the zoning commission has a right to regulate noise levels, which he says falls under the purview of the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.
But Anders told the justices that the DEEP regulates “stationary noise” not noise generated by moving race cars. “This is not a stationary source, so it’s outside of what the DEEP can regulate,” Ander said.
All three parties agreed to take their appeals of Moore’s ruling directly to the state Supreme Court.