School files suit against Suwanee

LAWRENCEVILLE - A private Catholic school has asked a judge to stop the city of Suwanee from requiring it to get permission before building a new campus in a residential area.

Notre Dame Academy and Settles Bridge Farm LLC, which owns the 37 acres on Moore Road the school wants to build on, have filed separate lawsuits against the city seeking injunctive relief for a planned zoning amendment and a building moratorium.

The suits, filed Friday in Gwinnett County Superior Court, contend Suwanee is discriminating against the Catholic school by putting up obstacles that could prevent its construction.

In a hearing Wednesday, attorney Thomas Tate said the school was targeted by the city, which hurriedly enacted a moratorium against institutional uses in residential areas three days after learning about Notre Dame's plans.

"It stops us in our tracks," he said. "All of a sudden, we're thrown into an entire process that's chock full of delays and expense."

Judge George Hutchinson said he expected to make a ruling Friday regarding the requests to end the moratorium and keep Suwanee from enacting a new zoning law.

A number of residents are opposed to the three-year-old school's plans to move from the River Green office park in Duluth to Suwanee, and more than 70 attended a meeting earlier this month to organize opposition.

While schools, churches and some other non-residential buildings are allowed on land zoned for houses in the city, the proposed amendment would require any institution to get a special-use permit to build on more than five acres, or to construct something larger than 20,000 square feet near homes.

It passed the city's planning commission and will be considered by the city council Tuesday. That same day, a moratorium that keeps such projects from being built is due to expire.

Suwanee planning director Josh Campbell said the moratorium's timing was "not a coincidence," something the attorneys for the school pointed out to indicate that the city was discriminating against Notre Dame, specifically.

Attorneys for Suwanee questioned whether Hutchinson had the authority to stop the city from passing the amendment and claimed that because no plans for the school had been filed with the city, Notre Dame was not vested in the property.

The school signed an $8 million contract days before the moratorium went into effect and is due to close on the land in December, attorneys said.

"The case is so premature, it's not ripe to be dealt with," attorney Gregory Jay said. "We're not trying to prohibit the school. You just have to come in and get a special-use permit. We're not targeting them."