Attorneys appeal Settles Bridge Farm case before Supreme Court

ATLANTA -- A 4-year-old dispute between the city of Suwanee and a land development company reached the Georgia Supreme Court on Monday, as both sides presented their arguments.

The city appealed a January ruling from a Superior Court judge that upheld a jury's recommendation from August of last year that concluded that city officials enacted a moratorium in 2008 specifically to stop landowners of Settles Bridge Farm LLC from selling 36.5 acres of undeveloped land to Notre Dame Academy. The transaction was estimated at $8 million.

A court document said City Manager Marty Allen sent an email on Feb. 27, 2008 that stated that "Suwanee could 'head this off' and in order to do so the city manager suggested, 'we amend our zoning ordinance to require a special-use permit."

Suwanee attorneys contend that the trial court made four errors, and the case shouldn't have gone to trial.

The city attorneys challenged a $1.8 million decision to the developers ordered by a judge earlier this year that involved a land deal at Settles Bridge and Moore roads.

In her arguments before the Supreme Court justices, Suwanee attorney Laurel Henderson said the representatives from Settles Bridge Farm LLC should have applied to the city for relief before pursuing a lawsuit.

Henderson added that the city didn't have a chance to approve a special-use permit, which could have conditions to go with it.

Henderson said schools were never singled out in the stipulations of the permit amendment, which was "use neutral" and had an intensity threshold of 20,000 square feet.

The court also erred by improperly inquiring into the city's subjective motives for enacting the amendment, Henderson said.

In her opening remarks to the justices, Henderson asked for reversal of the trial court ruling because the case is controlled by existing and established law.

"The problem with this case is the actions that were taken by the City Council of Suwanee, Ga. were all clearly within the fence," she said.

Henderson also added that Settles Bridge Farm LLC previously submitted plans for a 41-lot subdivision on the property, including seven variances and an administrative waiver, which were all granted by the city.

But then the developers were approached by Notre Dame Academy.

"(They) voluntarily abandoned efforts and decided they didn't want to go forward," Henderson said. "The reason was because they were approached by this private school, who said 'We'd like to buy your land.' They looked at their pro forma, which showed them making money. ... They looked at a contract that said they could make $8 million without turning a spade of dirt. If you're a developer, what's not to like? It's great. You reap the profit, you don't have the risk."

Settles Bridge attorney Gerald Davidson, Jr. said his client was harmed by the amendment, and the trial court properly found that Settles Bridge suffered a "significant detriment."

Davidson said the trial court ruling was "well reasoned" and contained facts that cannot be ignored unless they are clearly erroneous, which they aren't.

"They are basically undisputed," he said.

Davidson said the city officials are attempting to be shielded from liability because they put "magic words" in the amendment they enacted, referring to the health, safety, morality and welfare of the city's residents.

"Their attitude is, 'Because we say that, we're shielded from any inquiry," Davidson said. "Their justification (to prohibit development) was after-the-fact, and it rings hollow, when you look at the evidence."

Davidson said it would have been "futile" for his client to submit an application for a special-use permit.

In the current term of the Supreme Court, justices have until March to announce a ruling.