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County can't stop Magnolia Trace, lawyer says

Posted: January 9, 2012 - 1:01pm  |  Updated: January 9, 2012 - 2:44pm

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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.”

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Comments (3)

Riverman1

This Same Reasoning

The same reasoning used here could be said concerning new apartment construction in the county. The county has defined a limited number of areas where future apartments can be constructed and won't allow building in others. So far the county has avoided Fair Housing Acts suits.

With apartments restricted to the areas defined, building an apartment complex even out in the country will not be allowed. It's obvious the zoning is to prevent overcrowding which is a nebulous term that can be used in many ways including with Magnolia Trace.

Barry Paschal

Apartments aren't restricted to specific areas

There is no geographical restriction on apartments. There are a significant number of parcels already zoned for apartments under the old rules; commissioners can't do anything to change those. Any NEW requests for rezoning land for apartments is, however, subject to rules adopted last year that decrease the number of apartments allowed per acre, and limit the number of apartments allowed to be rezoned each year in the county as a whole. The location of that land doesn't have any bearing on the request. Magnolia Trace has been zone R3 since 1979, and isn't (and never has been) subject to any of those restrictions; the new rules apply only to AR zoning.

Little Lamb

Lawsuits

It seems strange to me that one would use the “we can't do that because we might get sued” reason to shut down a course of action. Well, one might get sued at any time for any reason.

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