Norris OKs countersuit against church

The Norris City Council has authorized its attorneys to file a countersuit against Covenant Life Church that could lead to a court order to force the church to close its alleged illegal recreational-vehicle park.

Councilmembers met with City Attorney J. Edward Pratt and another lawyer in closed session last Wednesday for guidance on how to proceed in Norris’ efforts to shut down the Solid Rock RV Park. The church opened the park more than two years ago without first obtaining the proper zoning for it, or submitting plans and getting building permits approved by the city’s Planning Commission.

The church last month opened the door for Norris to bring the matter before the Anderson County Chancery Court by filing its own lawsuit against the city.

That action sought to prevent the city’s threatened cutoff of city water to the church, which had been providing that water to the RV park residents in defiance of an agreement the church made with the city in May not to do so.

But that action may have backfired on the church when Chancellor James W. Brooks Jr. denied a request by Covenant Life for a temporary restraining order against the city of Norris to prevent the cutoff of water.

Now that the church has begun its own legal action through the Chancery Court, the city has decided to go the same route.

Although details were not available because the action was discussed behind closed doors, the council followed up that closed meeting with a brief open session, during which it approved a motion to allow the city’s legal team to file a response to Covenant Life’s lawsuit, and to file its own countersuit against the church.

Councilwoman Loretta Painter made the motion, which was seconded by Councilman Chuck Nicholson. The measure passed with a unanimous vote.

No timetable has been given yet for when the action will take place, but once the city’s response and countersuit are filed in Chancery Court, they will become public record.

During an “emergency” hearing Friday, Aug. 18, sought by the church, Covenant Life’s attorney, Daniel Sanders of Knoxville, acknowledged that the church has continued to provide water to the 16-space Solid Rock RV Park by using a garden hose connected to a spigot on the side of the church building. That’s apparently in circumvention of a Norris order the church had previously agreed to that city water service to the RV park be discontinued,

In answer to a direct question from Brooks asking whether the garden hose was being used to circumvent the city’s order, Sanders answered, “Yes.”

“All of the water is paid for,” he added.

Norris City Attorney Pratt, however, told the court that the church continues to operate the RV park illegally, having never obtained the proper zoning, site-plan approval or building permits required by the city.

In his decision against the church, Chancellor Brooks said:

“I am not going to grant a restraining order.”

He added that “There is no doubt [the RV park] was a commercial operation,” despite the church’s argument that it’s part of the Covenant Life “ministry” and that campers pay only “donations” to stay there.

Brooks told the church’s attorney: “Don’t use the spigot for the RVs; that’s the simple solution right now.”

After agreeing in May to disconnect its RV park from Norris city water, which was being provided by an unauthorized underground connection from the church, and passing an inspection that showed it had complied with the city’s order, Covenant Life received another demand from Norris on Aug. 10 that it stop providing water to RV park customers through the “temporary garden hose.”

Norris said in an Aug. 10 letter to Covenant Life: “Since that time [of the June 22 inspection], the city has become aware of continued water use from the Covenant Life Church to the Solid Rock RV Park.

“A garden hose has been observed to repetitively serve as an alternative water supply to some residing in the nonconforming/illegal RV Park, perpetuating its non-comforming/illegal use,” it continued.

The city’s letter again threatened the disconnection of its city water line to the entire church property, which is meant to serve the church building.

But Sanders said the RV park residents would have no access to water without the garden hose, as the state health department had ordered the church to “cap the well” that had been in use since the water line was disconnected.

In mid-June, the church handed residents of the RV park a “Boil Water Notice” for the wellwater, which had been found by the health department to be contaminated by E. coli bacteria and “fecal matter.”

The church then began supplying water to the trailers via the garden hose.

“The City requires active assurance that Covenant Life Church is not using and will not use or allow use of a temporary garden hose or other devices to circumvent the stop work order released June 22, 2023,” the city wrote in the letter, which was signed by Norris Building Inspector Lisa Crumply and sent to the church by certified mail.

“Failure to comply within 7 days will result in metered water services being disconnected and the single water meter serving the property will be locked,” the letter continued.

“Due to the unauthorized installation, alteration, enlargement and/or connection, water services will terminate to the entire property.”

Covenant Life built the RV park, with the 16 trailer spaces, to the rear and side of the church building nearly three years ago and began marketing it over the internet, through its own website and some RV community websites as a commercial enterprise.

“Campers,” many of whom have lived on the site for a year or more, were being charged $800 a month for their spaces.

But the church never applied to the city of Norris for a change in zoning that would have allowed an RV park on the property, at Andersonville Highway (Tenn. 61) and Norris Freeway (U.S. 441), and without ever getting the required building permits.

Before the conclusion of the Chancery Court hearing, Norris officials offered to delay cutting off the church’s water supply until a full hearing could be held in Chancery Court over the city’s allegations that the RV park was built and is being operated illegally.

That’s what the action taken by the City Council last week sets out to do.

No court date had been set yet as of Monday.