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August 6, 2008

No bliss on Newburg - Council president embroiled in neighborhood zoning dispute

Nancy Morris has hosted weddings on her garden-like Newburg Road property near the Highlands for 14 years. A picturesque guesthouse is situated on the lush plot of land, which many couples have found ideal for nuptials.

On wedding days, couples often set up tents on the Morris’ tennis court, more than 100 yards off the main road. There’s plenty of room for parking on the 6.7-acre property, and the weddings are small, intimate affairs. If music is provided, it’s a small group of orchestral musicians. The grounds are thick with trees and vegetation, providing plenty of shade. It’s quiet, despite the nearby Newburg traffic.

A woman who prides herself on having a large circle of friends and acquaintances, Morris hosts weddings for family and longtime friends at her idyllic home, which she shares with her husband, Allen Morris, who operates the Burdorf’s retail store.

A wedding is scheduled for this Saturday, Aug. 8, in fact, but with just a few days remaining before the big day, Morris still is waiting for the city to respond to her application to put up a tent.

And, according to Morris, there’s reason to believe she won’t get an answer in time (although, even without a tent, Morris says the wedding will proceed).

The city recently filed a lawsuit against Morris in Jefferson County Circuit Court seeking to prevent her from holding any more weddings in her backyard. The lawsuit calls the weddings an “illegal commercial activity” in a residential zone.

But according to Morris, she’s hosted weddings without incident for years, although until recently, she did receive compensation.

The trouble started two years ago, when the city first cited Morris for operating a business on her property. It was just about the same time that Metro Council President Jim King, D-10, bought 10 sprawling acres right next door on Newburg Road. 

Morris claims the two events are related, while King denies involvement in the zoning issues on the Morris property.

Despite the denial, King clearly is concerned about what’s going on next door, given he’s hired an attorney, Don Cox, to appeal the latest effort by Morris to hold events on the property.

Morris currently is seeking to subdivide her land into two lots because zoning laws limit the number of events allowed on a property. By dividing the land, Morris could apply for temporary permits for each parcel, enabling her to host more events.


But it turns out the spat between Morris and King started well before this zoning issue. 

In 2005, neighbors were concerned that the 10 acres nestled between the Morris property and King’s home on Newburg Road were going to be developed into a 24-home subdivision. It was a controversial scenario that neighbors were prepared to fight in court. That’s when King purchased the land for about $2 million, announcing that he would, at most, build a handful of houses to be occupied by family members.

Despite his vision for a family compound, currently only a vacant home sits on the land, where a 12-foot-wide path meanders through the grass.

Shortly after buying the land, King built a white picket fence that borders the Morris property. When the fence was constructed, Morris says she had to relocate one of her Japanese gardens that apparently encroached on his land.

It was a minor, neighborly squabble, but the dispute has since escalated. In separate interviews, both King and Morris provided a list of neighbors who support their separate positions. King says Morris is attempting to unlawfully operate a business, and Morris claims King is exercising his considerable power against her. 

As part of her ongoing dispute with the city, Morris signed an agreement last fall to hold no more than 14 weddings on the property before June 30, and that there would be no more “illegal events” after that date. In other words, instead of shutting down her business right away, the city permitted Morris to host weddings that were already scheduled.

Since June 30, however, Morris has continued to host free weddings for friends and family, which she believes is legal. But now that’s in dispute, too.

At issue is the definition of “friends and family” and whether the people involved really are longtime acquaintances. One bride was made to swear in an affidavit the extent of her relationship with the proprietor. As for Morris, she’s appalled that her longtime friends are being questioned this way.