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Staff Photo by Ben Benton/Chattanooga Times Free Press - Sep 14, 2012 - Philip Cagle. New Pikeville, Tenn., mayor Philip "Winky" Cagle was appointed Sept. 1, 2012, to fulfill the three-year, four-month unexpired term of former mayor Greg Johnson

This story was corrected to reflect Becky Ridley's correct name and the fact that Gregg Ridley was county mayor at the time he purchased the property in question.

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Bledsoe County mayor lawsuit

PIKEVILLE, Tenn. — The mayor of Bledsoe County, Tennessee, and his wife are suing the county seat of Pikeville and its zoning board over the denial of a rezoning request for some residential property the couple wants zoned commercial, alleging violations of the Fifth Amendment right to due process and the state's Open Meetings Act.

In December 2016, Gregg Ridley, now the county mayor, and his wife, Becky, purchased a lot just more than a half-acre in size on the corner of East Railroad and Cumberland avenues with plans to develop it for commercial use. Gregg Ridley was mayor at the time of the purchase. The property, bought for $30,000, had a house on it for which the Ridleys invested another $5,000 to demolish and for work to remove trees and ready the site for sale, according to the petition for writ filed in Bledsoe County Chancery Court Dec. 28, 2018.

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Bledsoe County Chancery Court

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The Ridleys said in the suit they have tried to market the property to potential buyers such as Little Caesars Pizza, River Valley Farm Credit, FirstBank, Mountain Valley Bank, Pikeville Dentistry, Hardee's and Victory Motors, the suit states.

Ridley on Wednesday declined to comment further on the suit, deferring to the 18-page court document.

In short, the suit challenges the validity of new city zoning rules put in place after the Ridleys purchased the property in 2016 in the town, which at the time had no zoning rules. The city adopted new regulations and appointed a six-member zoning board/planning commission in June 2018, and the suit accuses the same panel of violating the state's Open Meetings Act.

Last year, with the new rules, Ridley's formerly unzoned property was zoned residential.

The suits seeks unspecified damages, court costs and attorneys' fees, and a court order either requiring the city to approve the Ridleys' request to rezone the property to commercial or, alternately, declaring the zoning board "null and void" for violating the state's Open Meetings Act by allegedly not advertising meetings held in September and October.

The city has 30 days from that date to file an answer.

Pikeville Mayor Phil Cagle on Wednesday denied any violations of law on the city's part and said "our intent was never to single anybody out."

The new zoning board/planning commission "started two years ago with the goal to try to better our city, and to protect people's property," Cagle said. He said the planning panel is made up of qualified people who "have only one mission: to maintain people's property values."

Cagle said East Railroad Avenue parallels the five-lane-wide U.S. 127 bypass less than 100 feet away, but it is not considered frontage on the highway.

The concern is that a business with late hours such as a convenience store could build on the site in close proximity to adjacent homes on the same block, he said, remarking that the activity around such a business would be unwanted by residential neighbors.

The north end of East Railroad Avenue has several existing businesses along it, including an Exxon convenience store, Dollar General, farm supply store, retail rental spaces, a contractor and an insurance company. The south end of the same avenue has a residential home on either side of the Ridley parcel. A narrow, undeveloped grassy strip runs between East Railroad Avenue and Highway 127 for a block across the street in front of the Ridley property.

The suit describes contentious and heated exchanges between the two mayors during zoning board and Board of Alderman meetings last fall when the zoning request was discussed and denied. The suit also paints a picture of political enmities coming into play.

The Ridleys contend the new six-member panel's actions — through rejecting their rezoning request and denying their appeal — "has had the same effect on the [Ridleys'] ability to make use of their property as an actual exercise of eminent domain," the suit states. The suit claims the zoning board took those actions in meetings in September and October of 2018 that were not publicly advertised in violation of state law.

The Ridleys are seeking unspecified damages for compensation for the property, attorneys' fees and court costs and related expenses. The suit also seeks unspecified damages for violation of due process rights under the U.S. Constitution.

The suit seeks an injunction requiring compliance with the state's Open Meetings Act on the board's part.

Cagle, who was the county assessor for 30 years before being elected city mayor, said the Ridleys' property always was taxed as a private residence in the past.

"We're not going to stop anything from coming [to Pikeville] that's going to be beneficial and not detrimental to other property owners," Cagle said.

Contact staff writer Ben Benton at bbenton@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6569. Follow him on Twitter @BenBenton or at www.facebook.com/benbenton1.

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