Columbia County officials have no recourse to stop an unpopular development in Martinez, according to a lawyer hired to investigate the issue.
“In sum, it is my opinion that any action taken at this point by the county in an effort to stop the development of Magnolia Trace would likely fail and would open the county to a suit or suits for damages and other relief,” wrote Savannah attorney Patrick T. O’Connor to County Administrator Scott Johnson in a letter dated Dec. 19. “Such actions could be initiated by an aggrieved party, the United States Department of Justice, or the State of Georgia.”
Even an “effort to stop the project” might result in lawsuits, according to O’Connor.
Commissioners voted last month to hire O’Connor following complaints from hundreds of residents near the planned “affordable housing” project on Old Ferry Road. Those against the development have said it will adversely affect surrounding property values, increase crime and overburden the school system.
Missouri-based Affordable Equity Partners arranged last year with the state Department of Community Affairs to receive tax credits to construct 50 single-family homes on the 15-acre site.
The commission supported that effort with a resolution passed in June 2010 and submitted to the DCA.
O’Connor wrote that Affordable Equity Partners likely has “vested rights” in the Magnolia Trace development. Should the county violate those rights, the developer could “claim for injunctive relief, damages, attorney’s fees and costs.”
Also, any attempt to stop the development, O’Connor wrote, might be viewed as discrimination, which would violate the federal and state Fair Housing Acts.
In a subsequent letter from O’Connor dated Dec. 20, he told Johnson “yes” when asked if the Magnolia Trace project could have proceeded without the commission’s endorsement.
Unlike most items commissioners vote on, the resolution never was discussed in committee meetings prior to the commission vote.
Instead, it was discussed in a meeting with the developer, Commission Chairman Ron Cross, Commissioner Trey Allen and county attorney Doug Batchelor at Batchelor’s law office in Evans.
Though unwilling to discuss his findings, O’Connor said Monday that he sent the letter to Johnson on the day it was dated.
Since that time, the commission has met twice, but did not openly discuss O’Connor’s findings.
However, Allen said Jennifer McCray, a spokeswoman for the residents against the development, was included in all communications between O’Connor and county officials, and that she informed her neighbors.
A phone message left Monday for McCray wasn’t immediately returned.
Considering O’Connor’s legal assessment, Allen believes there is nothing left anyone can do to halt the development.
“Judging from what he told us, I don’t know what else we can do,” said Allen, who represents the Magnolia Trace area. “It’s out of our hands. I don’t see where we have any grounds to stop it.”