LAWRENCEVILLE -- Settles Bridge Farm in Suwanee has accused a top official at the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce of sabotaging a sales agreement to prevent a private Catholic school from building on the property, according to a lawsuit filed earlier this month in Gwinnett County Superior Court.
The farm is seeking compensatory and punitive damages, along with attorneys' fees, from Nick Masino, vice president of economic development and Partnership Gwinnett, and the Gwinnett Chamber of Commerce.
The complaint alleges Masino "contacted, induced, coerced, pressured and/or conspired with (Suwanee) City Council Members and City employees, including the Mayor, City Manager and Planning Director to act to block the school's relocation and the Property's development."
The lawsuit states that Masino advised the city's mayor and council to amend a zoning ordinance to prevent the school's relocation after he overhead Notre Dame Academy's president talking about moving to the new site at a Gwinnett Chamber meeting.
As a result of a moratorium of building permits and the subsequent approval of a special-use permit amendment to the city's zoning ordinance in 2008, Notre Dame Academy breached the sales contract with Settles Bridge Farm in August.
"The timing of this breach was particularly catastrophic because it came on the precipice of the nation's worst real estate crisis in recent memory," the lawsuit states. "... Masino acted improperly and without privilege when he intentionally disclosed the confidential and proprietary business information about SBF's plan to sell the Property to Notre Dame for the development of a school to individuals outside the Chamber -- including, the Mayor, City Council, and City employees for the sale (sic) purpose to sabotage the school project and sale of the Property."
Settles Bridge Farm owns 36.5 acres of land near the intersection of Moore Road and Settles Bridge Road, a residential area in Suwanee. Notre Dame Academy agreed to purchase the land in February 2008 and planned to relocate its campus there.
At the time of the sale, the city's zoning ordinances permitted the property to be developed as a school, the lawsuit states. City officials confirmed with both Settles Bridge Farm and Notre Dame representatives that no city action or approval would be needed for the school to be built.
Masino served as Suwanee's mayor from 1999 to 2007, leaving the position for his job at the Chamber. The lawsuit states that after Masino overheard the school president talking about the relocation, he emailed the mayor and City Council on Feb. 27, 2008, that the surrounding community "would probably go nuts over" a school being built on the property.
"Masino then advised the addressees that the best/only way to prevent the school's relocation was to amend the zoning ordinance," the complaint states. "He further advised that they should keep this information to themselves until a plan of action is in place."
The mayor and city manager met the next day to discuss the property and the possibility of amending the zoning ordinance, the lawsuit states.
On May 27, the council approved a special-use permit amendment to the city's zoning ordinance, which required a special-use permit to develop the property.
"Masino intended to and ultimately succeeded in preventing SBF from selling the Property to Notre Dame," the lawsuit states. "Without Masino's tortious conduct, the City would never have acted to impede the Norte (sic) Dame project and purchase of the Property."
The lawsuit also claims Masino's actions breached his confidentiality agreement with the Chamber.
Masino did not immediately return messages left on his cellphone Thursday afternoon and evening.