Masino denies sabotaging land deal in court filing

Nick Masino

Nick Masino

LAWRENCEVILLE -- Former Suwanee Mayor Nick Masino denies that he sabotaged the sale of Settles Bridge Farm to a private Catholic school, according to legal documents filed in Superior Court last week.

Settles Bridge Farm lodged a lawsuit against Masino and his employer, the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce, in early June, claiming that the former mayor conspired with city officials to block the sale of the land to Notre Dame Academy.

Masino, the Chamber's vice president of economic development and Partnership Gwinnett, said Monday he could not comment on legal matters. In an 11-page answer to the lawsuit, however, he denied the lawsuit's complaints.

"The claim arises out of the alleged acts that may only be reasonably construed as acts in furtherance of the right of free speech, to wit: corresponding in good faith with city officials about zoning matters," according to Masino's response.

The Gwinnett Chamber filed a separate answer that also denies the allegations of Settles Bridge Farm.

The answers from both Masino and the Gwinnett Chamber contend that Settles Bridge Farm is not eligible for the punitive damages it seeks. Both defendants asked for the complaint to be dismissed and for their attorneys' fees to be paid by the plaintiff.

Settles Bridge Farm claims Masino overheard Debra Orr, the president of Notre Dame Academy, at a Chamber function in February 2008 talking about the plan to move the school from Duluth to Suwanee. In his answer, Masino said he learned of the deal because "he was summoned by Debra Orr into (Chamber President) Jim Maran's office and specifically told of the possibility of relocating Notre Dame Academy to Suwanee."

Masino said he called Suwanee's planning director -- not City Manager Marty Allen, as the lawsuit claims -- to ask about the property's zoning. Settles Bridge Farm contends Masino sent an email to the mayor and City Council stating the surrounding community "would probably go nuts over" having a school built on the property.

Masino said he has no knowledge of such an email and denied advising the council to amend zoning ordinances to prevent the school's relocation, the legal response states. Last month, Allen said he sent an email to the council with the phrase "go nuts over," not Masino. Allen also said it's not unusual to alert council members of potential land deals in the city.

Gregory Jay, the city's attorney, said last month the mayor and council members could not comment on the matter because of pending litigation from a complaint the farm filed against the city in 2008. The city has already settled a separate lawsuit with Notre Dame Academy.