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Plaintiffs claim Suwanee railroaded project

SUWANEE -- Jurors on Tuesday heard opposing viewpoints on whether Suwanee city officials intentionally railroaded the planned construction of a private Catholic school on valuable, undeveloped land in north Gwinnett three years ago, potentially costing the business selling the land several million dollars.

Notre Dame Academy entered into an $8 million contract in early 2008 with Settles Bridge Farm to buy 36.5 acres near the intersection of Moore Road and Settles Bridge Road, a residential area in Suwanee.

The land owners had planned to develop a 41-lot subdivision before they were approached by school officials. Those officials had been scouting locations in Suwanee and found it appealing that the city's zoning ordinances -- at that time -- would allow a school to be built there without approval or action from the city.

Attorneys for the plaintiffs contend city officials hastily called a meeting within 48 hours of learning of the plans and instituted a moratorium on building permits for large projects in residential areas, fearing outrage from citizens in the area.

"The city will clearly admit that there were no other pending (large) developments" in Suwanee at that time, attorney Gerald Davidson told jurors in opening statements.

Three months after the moratorium, the city approved a special-use permit amendment to the city's zoning ordinance, which would require the school to have such a permit to develop the property.

The school never applied for permitting, Davidson said, because that effort would have been futile, given the obvious opposition to the project. They instead asked for an exemption and fought a 29-month legal fight with the city until reaching a settlement this year.

The next day, the school terminated its contract with Settles Bridge Farm, a move that could cost the business $4 million based on the land's value before and after the recession, Davidson said.

The city's attorney, Laurel Henderson, pointed to a different impetus for the city's actions -- a yearlong study that gathered public input and showed strong community concern for preserving single-family residential areas.

The study lead the city to develop "character areas" that showed the site in question was unfit for academic use. The plaintiffs bought the property for roughly $4 million and can still develop it as homes, Henderson said.

"The city of Suwanee, over the years, has passed a number of moratoriums" limiting such things as extended stay hotels and billboards, Henderson told jurors.

Contrary to Davidson's assertions, Henderson said Suwanee officials have passed every special-use permit request they've been presented with, including one for a controversial large church.

The lawsuit is one of three that grew from conflict over the assembled Settles Bridge Farm land.

In August last year, the city settled a separate lawsuit with Notre Dame Academy for $257,000 that reimbursed the school for all out-of-pocket expenses.

Another suit pits Settle Bridge Farm businessmen against the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce and its vice president of economic development, Nick Masino, a former Suwanee Mayor.

The plaintiffs claim Masino and chamber officials sabotaged the deal because the surrounding community would be outraged. Both Masino and the chamber have denied those allegations in separate responses.

For now, the school remains put in a Duluth office park.

Suwanee city manager Marty Allen, the first witness called Tuesday, acknowledge that shortly after receiving word of the planned school, he sent an e-mail to Suwanee Mayor Dave William and council members advising the community would "go nuts" over the plans. In the e-mail, Allen advised how to proceed should the city wish to "head this off."

Allen testified the latter phrase was not referring to stopping the plans, but encouraging collaboration with the stakeholders.

"I wish I'd have phrased it more clearly," Allen testified.

Two council members responded in minutes in favor of exploring a moratorium. The mayor replied, simply, "Ok," according to testimony.