LAWRENCEVILLE -- A Gwinnett jury has ruled the city of Suwanee owes $1.8 million to landowners who lost an $8 million deal with a private school when the city intervened in 2008.
Jurors in the civil trial deliberated about five hours, returning Friday evening convinced that city officials took action specifically to block the sale of 36.5 acres of undeveloped land to Notre Dame Academy, said Gerald Davidson, an attorney for plaintiff Settles Bridge Farm.
The settlement amount represents how much jurors determined the property's value has diminished between 2008 and post-recession 2011. The undeveloped acreage sits near the intersection of Moore Road and Settles Bridge Road, a residential area in Suwanee.
"The city never offered to pay one penny as compensation to Settles Bridge Farm, so an award of almost $2 million is satisfying, even though we did ask for more," Davidson said Saturday.
The landowners had planned to develop a 41-lot subdivision before they were approached by school officials. The school 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 said 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.
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. Davidson said that loophole killed the project's chances.
The next day, the school terminated its contract with Settles Bridge Farm, a move the plaintiff's attorneys said could cost the business $4 million, based on the land's value before and after the recession.
Davidson said he was unsure what coffer the city planned to pull funding from to cover the $1.8 million settlement. The city's attorney in the suit, Laurel Henderson, could not be reach for comment Saturday.
During the weeklong trial, Henderson had argued the city's actions did not specifically target the school project. She pointed to a yearlong study that gathered public input and showed strong community support for barring high-traffic projects from single-family residential areas.
The ruling marks the second settlement Suwanee has had to pay in the land disagreement, and it closes the second of three related suits.
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 the Settles 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.