Landowners Sue Tenn. County for Rejecting Bible Park

A family that claims they lost a pending deal to sell their farmland because Rutherford County officials rejected a massive Bible-themed park last year is suing for $11 million.

Rutherford County in Tennessee was a potential site for Bible Park USA, a proposed $175 million attraction that would include visual exhibits of Bible stories.

Plaintiff Steve Shelton filed his multimillion-dollar lawsuit in federal court on Friday, suing the county and County Attorney Jim Cope for not approving the attraction to be built on his family's 240 acres of farmland.

"Without the zoning requested, the favorable contract was lost, and the property is worth less with the presently zoned land for agricultural or residential (use)," Taylor Harris, an attorney representing Shelton family members, told The Daily News Journal of Rutherford County.

Harris said the suit was filed after county officials declined to settle the suit and a chance to buy the property.

The Sheltons are suing the county for $11 million plus interest and attorney fees as well as County Attorney Jim Cope for punitive damages.

"The Shelton family is entitled to damages for violation of their property rights," said Harris, according to the DNJ. "They gave plenty of opportunity to the County Commission to see the error of its way. We gave them every opportunity to look at the facts in the law and reconsider."

A majority of commissioners had approved a rezoning request for the theme park project, in spite of fierce opposition from residents, but the vote fell short of the two-thirds majority required by a petition rule. The rule applies when at least 20 percent of property owners with land near a development petition against the project.

Jon Ross, an attorney defending the county, said the evidence in the case will show that "there were no violations of the constitutional rights of the Sheltons," the DNJ reported.

After being denied a rezoning approval in Rutherford, the developers of the Bible park considered Lebanon City in Wilson County. But developers recently suspended the project there after Lebanon city officials cited a lack of financial statements and withdrew support for the attraction.