A lawsuit seeking to overturn Columbia County's stormwater utility fee failed last week when a judge ruled in the county's favor, but an attorney says an appeal is likely.
Superior Court Judge J. Carlisle Overstreet granted summary judgment to the county's motion to reject the lawsuit, and denied the motion from the four men who wanted the stormwater utility ordinance declared invalid.
"The court's finding that the stormwater utility was properly created and that the county may charge fees for its services in collecting, treating and disposing of stormwater runoff is welcome news," Columbia County Administrator Steve Szablewski said.
The ruling is the latest development in a nearly 2-year-old lawsuit filed against the county by property owners Donald L. McLeod, Charles E. McLeod, R.E. Watkins Jr. and George Fuller Jr., all of whom live in the stormwater utility's service area.
The stormwater utility went into effect in 1999, and charges are based on the amount of impervious surface - anything water does not seep into - on a piece of property. It was established to fund projects that help control flooding along Reed, Euchee, Jones and Crane creeks, and Betty's Branch watersheds.
Around 20,000 property owners in Martinez, Evans and near Grovetown are a part of the billing area.
The suit said that county officials should have charged the fee to the entire county or attained the permission of residents in the utility area before instituting the fee.
"We felt we were authorized to (institute the stormwater utility)," County Attorney Doug Batchelor said. "The constitution of Georgia clearly says that the county can provide stormwater services and the revenue bond law says you can collect fees for it. I think the law was clear."
In his ruling, Overstreet said the county had a constitutional right to charge the fee, the fee was needed for community improvement, and the stormwater utility is a fee and not a tax.
U.S. District Court Judge Dudley Bowen earlier this year ruled the fee is a tax, and sent the suit back to superior court. But Overstreet said Bowen's ruling applied only to jurisdiction, not to the actual structure of the fee.
Overstreet also ruled that Donald McLeod and Charles McLeod must pay the county $139.23 and $106.38, respectively, in unpaid stormwater utilities.
Batchelor said Overstreet's ruling may be appealed.
"Whether or not we will appeal this I don't know," Fuller said. "I do know it's not right to charge a tax to only a part of the county without a referendum, but you can't win them all."
According to John Batson, Jack Long's co-counsel for the residents who sued the county, an appeal of the judgment is "fairly likely," and a motion of appeal would need to be filed within 30 days of the ruling and be set down on the briefing schedule.
"It is about a four- to five-month process here in Georgia," he said.
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