RV park closes

Covenant Life Church meets court deadline

One of the last four travel trailers parked in a campsite at the Solid Rock RV Park on the campus of Covenant Life Church in Norris is prepared for towing away last Friday after- noon. A federal court ordered the church to have the recreational vehicles removed from the site by the end of the day Friday, May 31. (photo:G. Chambers Williams III )
The last six travel trailers parked in campsites at the Covenant Life Church’s recreational-vehicle park in Norris were removed late last week in time to comply with a federal court order.

That order, issued May 1, required them to be gone no later than May 31.

Two of them were towed from the church’s property off Andersonville Highway and Norris Freeway (U.S. 441) last Thursday, and the remaining four were removed on Friday, which was the court’s deadline.

“The lawsuit is still ongoing,” Norris City Manager Adam Ledford said. “But [the moving of the trailers] complies with the order of the judge consistent with the current state of the case. There are still some outstanding legal issues.”

Covenant Life opened the facility as the Solid Rock RV Park about five years ago, promoting it on its own website that allowed visitors to make reservations and pay the camping fees all online.

But the city of Norris said the RV park was opened illegally, because the church did not first obtain a required zoning change from the city, or present a site plan and secure building permits necessary to install the park’s infrastructure.

Norris eventually took the church to U.S. District Court in Knoxville to force the closure of the RV park and the removal of the trailers. During most of its operations, Solid Rock RV Park’s 16 campsites were filled, and many if not most tenants of the trailers were longtime residents of the park.

Initially, the church charged those campers $800 a month rent for each campsite, and the tenants reported that the church automatically drafted the rental fees from their bank accounts.

But later, after Norris began challenging the church over its operation of the RV park, the church began referring to it as the “Solid Rock Retreat,” and said in court filings that it never charged anyone for staying there. What the tenants paid to the church was characterized as “voluntary donations,” the church contended.

On May 1, U.S. District Judge Charles E. Atchley Jr. in Knoxville ordered the church to shut down its RV park and remove the recreational vehicles from it within 30 days.

Despite Covenant Life’s assertions to the contrary, the church’s own attorney, Daniel Sanders of Knoxville, has acknowledged in open court that the church built and opened Solid Rock RV Park in 2019 as a commercial enterprise on restricted church property.

On Monday, Sanders declined to make any statements about the RV park to The Courier News, other than to say he did not agree with the newspaper calling it an RV park.

In its own court filings, the church insists that it has never charged anyone any rent for the RV spaces, but only asked for donations.

The church also swears that it operates the “retreat” only as a Christian ministry, and that it’s just a “parking lot,” and was never intended to be an RV park, as such:

“ … (T)he Church provides overnight parking and accommodation to congregants, missionaries, and others in need as a form of Christian retreat and an exercise of deeply held religious belief,” attorney Sanders said in a letter to the city included in a court filing. “I am informed that no commercial transactions are involved.

“Rather, the Church accepts offerings essential for the maintenance of its facilities on a free-will basis.

“Individuals who utilize the overnight parking areas receive prayer and reading of Holy Scripture. They are expected to attend worship services, commune with Church leaders, and participate in other religious programs available on the Church property.

“Indeed, the Church offers certain religious programs tailored to the needs of those who use the overnight parking at times when regular congregants are not present at the Church. Missionaries utilize Church facilities to further their ministries and other charitable and religious purposes.”

The church also argued in its court filings that it’s use of the property for the overnight parking of RVs is allowed under city zoning laws because the area is simply a “parking lot,” not an RV park.

City officials contend that if it is only a parking lot, the church would not have needed to install water, sewer and electrical hookups to each of the 16 spaces, nor would it have needed to build a bathhouse – which had a sign on it saying, “Solid Rock RV Park.”

Additionally, the church had applied to and received a permit from the Tennessee Department of Health earlier this year to operate the RV park as an “organized camp,” the city’s filings note.

In closing, in its Dec. 8, 2023, filing with the U.S. District Court, Norris said:

“The City has demonstrated that all of the factors supporting a grant of preliminary injunctive relief have been met. This Court should enter a preliminary injunction in the City’s favor … “

In November, the church quietly tore down and removed the RV park’s bathhouse in an apparent tacit admission that its construction was not legal under Norris building and zoning codes.

But the city also noted in the Dec. 8 court filing that Covenant Life even violated city ordinances in its destruction of the bathhouse, by doing so without a city permit.

City council members authorized the countersuit and the move of the case to federal court from Anderson County Chancery Court after meeting with the city’s lawyers in a closed session Sept. 6.

This move came after the church filed its own lawsuit in Chancery Court in August, seeking to prevent the city from turning off water service to the church in response to Covenant Life’s action to provide Norris city water to the Solid Rock RV Park in violation of a June agreement with the city not to do so.

In its lawsuit against the city, Covenant Life’s attorney argued that Norris was in violation of the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution in threatening to cut off water to the church without first going through court to do so.

The 14th amendment says, “No state shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any state deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.”

During the “emergency” hearing in Chancery Court on Aug. 18, Chancellor James W. Brooks Jr. found no grounds for a claim based on the 14th amendment, and declined to issue the restraining order sought by the church.

But city officials said that by opening a claim under the U.S. Constitution, Covenant Life cleared the way for moving the case to the U.S. District Court.