Lime Rock, Conn. — To the relief of some and to the consternation of others, a recent ruling by a panel of Connecticut judges means this picturesque town on the border with Berkshire County won’t get noisier anytime soon.
In a near-unanimous decision (click here if you want to wade through all 41 pages), seven of the eight justices of the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that the town of Salisbury has the authority to regulate many of the operations of Lime Rock Park, the historic race track tucked into a hollow near the Housatonic River. The park is popular with Berkshire County residents.
The ruling is the culmination of a five-year legal battle between the town, the park and the Lime Rock Citizens Council, a group of residents who were actively opposed to Sunday racing.
The May 22 Supreme Court ruling effectively reversed an earlier 2018 decision by a lower court. Among other things, the lower court found that the town’s planning and zoning commission did not have the authority to limit racing on weekends. That has all changed now.
“I’m disappointed,” Lime Rock Park owner Skip Barber, himself a retired race car driver, said in an interview. He added the decision will have no impact on Berkshire County patrons because “it does not change what we do.”
“The Citizens Council said all along they don’t want things to change and they got that,” said Barber. As for the legal battle, Barber said he had few viable options remaining and that “it’s pretty much the end.” Barber posted an additional comment here. He called the court’s determination “a mixed decision but certainly it went largely the Citizen Council’s way.”
As The Edge reported almost two years ago, the town and its ally, the Lime Rock Citizens Council, have been engaged in a pitched battle for years against the park and its supporters over allowing Sunday racing and over which entity — the town or the state — should be allowed to govern its operations.
In an interview, LRCC member Peter Wolf referred The Edge to a summary of the state Supreme Court decision prepared by an attorney for the council. Click here to read it.
Asked whether he felt vindicated, Wolf replied: “Not vindicated really, but mostly just relieved that it’s done. This July will be five years, and hundreds of thousands of dollars have been spent.”
Lime Rock Park, a unique and upscale auto-racing track, finds itself in an uncomfortable position. The track, which is located in the town of Salisbury, remains prohibited from holding races on Sundays — evidently the only such facility in the nation facing that prohibition. Barber has said repeatedly that the inability to schedule major weekend events to include Sunday racing puts Lime Rock at a competitive disadvantage.
“What we needed and wanted was up to three Sundays for our major events. Racing has changed dramatically over the last 50 years,” Barber said, who has owned the track since 1984. “There are far fewer small events and the races held on the main events are longer and we are time constricted without Sunday afternoon.”
But the ban on Sunday racing wasn’t imposed by the town or even the state. Rather, it’s the result of a court injunction issued in 1959, only a couple of years after the track was built from the remnants of an old gravel pit. Neighbors, an Episcopal church across the street from the park and the caretakers of a nearby cemetery rose up in outrage. The original track owners were subsequently taken to court after a nuisance suit was filed.
The result was a permanent injunction that largely governs the track’s operations. Click here to read the original 1959 decision and its amendments. It is interesting to note that state law explicitly allows racing on Sundays but not before noon. So the 60-year-old injunction essentially overrides Connecticut law.
Five years ago the Salisbury Planning and Zoning Commission moved to actually incorporate the injunction into its zoning bylaws. Barber, who is also the former owner of the racing school that still bears his name, filed a lawsuit challenging that action and seeking relief, he said, to remain competitive and economically viable. Barber wanted to have more hours of racing (including on a limited number of Sundays), more unmuffled competitions and increased campsite occupancy.
Critics of the town and the LRCC have charged that they simply want to put the track out of business, a contention that Wolf strongly denies.
“We were not interested in shutting down the track,” Wolf said. “We just want to see things stay the way they are. The larger issue is who ends up with land-use control? The state or the town?”
Many Barber supporters have been sounding off on a Facebook group founded by Brian Ohler, a former Republican state representative who recently announced he was running to regain the seat he lost in 2018. Some are complaining loudly that outsiders want to shut down the track or are engaging in NIMBY behavior. But of course, it’s also fair to point out that residents of Lime Rock have been living with the track in their backyards for more than 60 years.
Wolf told The Edge that if Sunday racing were instituted at the track, “That would have been the end of Music Mountain — the final nail in the coffin.”
Music Mountain, the venerable music venue across the Housatonic River in Falls Village, is a favorite of many Berkshire County chamber-music aficionados and holds most of its concerts on Sunday afternoons. Its supporters say the organization could not survive if racing were allowed on Sundays from Memorial Day through Labor Day, the busiest time for both Music Mountain and the track.
“This is an enormous relief for Music Mountain and for the future of our beloved institution,” Music Mountain artistic and executive director Oskar Espina-Ruiz said in a statement. “The threat of noise from Lime Rock Park drifting up to Music Mountain, less than five miles away, has hung over us for too long. It would have made our Sunday concerts virtually impossible.”
“Music Mountain has long had an excellent relationship with Skip Barber and Lime Rock Park, and we look forward to putting this litigation behind us and moving forward together as important summer tourism destinations in the Northwest Corner,” added David Conte, who chairs the Music Mountain board of directors.
Like many cultural venues in Berkshire County and Connecticut’s “Northwest Corner,” Music Mountain has recently struggled to stay afloat during the COVID-19 pandemic. Last month, for the first time in its 91-year history, Music Mountain joined several other cultural institutions in the region and announced the cancellation of its live summer performance season because of the pandemic.
Meanwhile, back in the Lime Rock section of Salisbury, things are quieter than usual. Lime Rock Park has reopened but to private track rentals only. Some of its events, such as the Northeast Grand Prix, have been rescheduled for the fall. Much remains up in the air but one thing is certain: For the time being, Sundays will remain quiet.