Catholic school drops lawsuit against Suwanee

SUWANEE -- The city of Suwanee and Notre Dame Academy have reached an agreement resulting in the dismissal of a two-year-old lawsuit that was scheduled to go to trial at the end of this month, officials announced Friday.

The lawsuit centered around the potential relocation of the Catholic school from an office park in Duluth to a 36.5-acre residential site on Moore Road in Suwanee.

Under terms of the agreement, Notre Dame will dismiss litigation related to the proposed school location and will not seek to build a school on the Moore Road site in the future, city officials said. Any future potential relocation within Suwanee would be governed by the city's prevailing zoning ordinances.

In exchange, the city agreed to a $257,000 financial settlement that reimbursed the school for all out-of-pocket expenses, school officials said. Suwanee Mayor Dave Williams said $50,000 was paid by the city, while the other $207,000 was paid by the city's insurance carrier.

Williams said the agreement works well for both parties and avoids further costly litigation.

"The city is pleased that Notre Dame has decided not to move forward with the school in a residential area of Moore Road," Williams said. "That decision brings certainty to the city and surrounding neighborhood and facilitated the parties reaching a final agreement. As a result of the agreement, goals set forward in the city's land use plan will be protected."

The school's Board of Trustees decided to accept the offer primarily as a result of the prolonged uncertainty of the financial markets, according to a statement released by Notre Dame Academy's attorney, Tom Tate.

"While God's plan for Notre Dame Academy continues to unfold, the current plan is to remain at the River Green locations and wait out the financial storm," the statement says. "... It is the assured belief of the school's Board of Trustees that staying at the River Green locations for the immediate future is what is best for the school and community. This settlement allows the school to change plans with no financial impact."

The school's Building and Grounds Committee is in the process of developing a facility enhancement plan to meet the school's educational needs, according to the statement.

Notre Dame Academy entered into a contract in 2008 with Settles Bridge Farm LLC to buy land on Moore Road. The way the land was zoned would have allowed a school to be built there as a matter of right, according to the lawsuit filed by the school.

But days after city officials found out about the school's plans, the City Council held an emergency meeting and issued a moratorium that stopped nonresidential uses in neighborhood districts, the lawsuit stated.

At the time, Suwanee's planning director, Josh Campbell, said the school's request to build was not the only reason for the zoning amendment. A large part of the city's 2030 comprehensive plan deals with preserving various areas' residential nature.

The school's lawsuit stated the city's zoning amendment violated its rights under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000.

Notre Dame Academy is an independent, Marist-sponsored Catholic school that serves students in preschool through eighth grade. It opened in 2005 and operates two campuses -- an Early Years campus and an Elementary and Middle School Campus -- in the office park in Duluth.

A separate lawsuit against the city filed by Settles Bridge is scheduled to go to trial next month, the mayor said. He said he does not yet know if the settlement with Notre Dame will impact the Settles Bridge lawsuit.