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One of the five horses George Wheeler keeps on land in Decatur approaches as he talks about rezoning issues he faces. Wheeler lost the lease on an adjacent piece of land to Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson. The land is behind the tree line at right.
Daily photo by Gary Cosby Jr.
One of the five horses George Wheeler keeps on land in Decatur approaches as he talks about rezoning issues he faces. Wheeler lost the lease on an adjacent piece of land to Decatur City Council President Billy Jackson. The land is behind the tree line at right.

Horses' home
focus of family's quandary

Councilman leases land where animals once roamed; building inspector halts work on barn

By Melanie B. Smith
msmith@decaturdaily.com 340-2468

The Wheeler family's five horses, which live within the city of Decatur, don't have a clue about the wrangle involving them.

Champion, Willy Jo and the others just know they are eating hay instead of pasture grass and they don't have a finished barn for shelter.

One part of the horses' tale is the Decatur Board of Zoning Adjustment's recommendation that George Wheeler and his family members seek rezoning for property they own off 14th Avenue Southwest near Second Street.

The board told the family Dec. 21 that their request for a variance to keep horses on the acreage was outside the scope of its work. The property is zoned R-2, single family residential, which does not permit livestock.

Officials said the property needs to be rezoned AG-1. Wheeler and his mother, Minnie Wheeler, said they would pursue rezoning and withdrew their variance request.

George Wheeler said afterward that a city building inspector put a stop work order on a barn he was building because he had no permit. Trying to get a permit led them to the zoning adjustment board, the Wheelers said.

Unfair?

But George Wheeler said that is only part of what has happened with his family's horse hobby.

He said City Council President Billy Jackson unfairly treated the Wheeler family in leasing property where Wheeler horses had lived for years.

George Wheeler said his brother, Cashin Wheeler Jr., leased the eight acres behind Jackson's home on Second Street Southwest for about 15 years. The woman who owns the land had given Cashin Wheeler Jr. a lease good through October, said his brother.

After Cashin Wheeler Jr. died in July, and just before the lease expired, a family member called to ask when the rent was due. The family learned that Jackson had obtained a lease, said George Wheeler. He said neither the property owner nor Jackson talked to the Wheelers beforehand.

"To undermine us like that? We were supposed to have been friends," George Wheeler said of Jackson.

He wonders if Jackson sent the building inspector to shut down work on the barn.

Jackson, though, said it was not he who complained about the barn.

He also said his lease of the property was something he'd been discussing with the owner for years.

Jackson said he already leases a lot adjacent to his house from the same owner. He said he told her for years that if the lease for the eight acres ever came up, he wanted it.

Jackson said, in the 1980s, his father had leased the acreage. His father kept horses there, but gave up the lease, Jackson said.

That is when Cashin Wheeler Jr. took up the lease. Jackson said the owner told him she would notify the Wheeler family.

"We've been friends all of our lives. I hate that something like this came up," Jackson said.

Jackson said he has nine horses in Lawrence County that he plans to move to the property after he gets new fencing.

Cleared site

The Wheelers bought 31/2 acres adjoining the pasture that Jackson is now leasing and moved their horses there.

That land is at the center of the zoning quandary.

George Wheeler said he has had the new property bulldozed because it was so overgrown. He said his brother used to see coyotes there.

Minnie Wheeler said she doesn't hold hard feelings toward Jackson and feels blessed to be able to buy property to keep horses near her home.

The family plans to seed the stretch of land adjacent to Roselawn Cemetery in pasture grass.

But for now, the barn is incomplete and the Wheelers are hauling in hay for feed.

The rezoning process could take 90 days, city officials told the Wheelers.

George Wheeler said his is a "horse family." His grandfather was a blacksmith, his uncle raised horses for harness racing and his father and mother always had horses.

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