Staff Photo: John Bohn — An empty home, viewed through a damaged fence, sits on an unused property located near the intersection of Moore and Short Roads in Suwanee. The Georgia Supreme Court has ruled in favor of the City of Suwanee in a suit brought forward by Settles Bridge Farm landowners.
SUWANEE -- Suwanee will not have to pay a land owner in a years-long case over a private school in the city, after the Supreme Court overturned a jury verdict Monday.
State Supreme Court Chief Justice Carol Hunstein wrote in the ruling that the lawsuit filed by Settles Bridge Farm LLC was filed prematurely and should have been dismissed, saving taxpayers $1.8 million originally awarded to the land owner over allegations that the city council improperly changed its zoning laws after learning of plans to locate the school in a residential area.
"Of course, we're pleased that the Supreme Court ruled in our favor," Mayor Jimmy Burnette said in a statement. "We were confident all along that our actions were legal and appropriate for our community and that the Supreme Court would understand the complexities of this case. While the process of protecting our community can sometimes be difficult, we will continue to implement appropriate zoning and planning tools to maintain the integrity of our award-winning community."
The Supreme Court justices agreed with the city that the developer had not exhausted all administrative remedies before filing suit.
The case dates back to 2008 when the Notre Dame Academy approached the developer about building a school on the 36 acres the firm purchased in years prior for $6 million. Settles Bridge Farm LLC officials abandoned a subdivision project for the school, entering into an $8 million contract, but the developers contended the value of the land decreased when the city imposed a moratorium then changed its codes requiring that large buildings in any resident area go through a special permitting process. Neither Settles Bridge Farm LLC or Notre Dame Academy ever applied for the permit.
"As a general rule, before seeking a judicial determination that a local regulation is unconstitutional as applied to its property, a party must first apply to local authorities for relief," the court opinion said. "Here, to satisfy the exhaustion requirement, Settles Bridge should have submitted a special use permit application to the City Planning Commission for its review, to be followed by City Council review. Because Settles Bridge failed to apply for a permit, it did not exhaust its administrative remedies in this case."
Justices said the Gwinnett trial court erred in finding that it would have been a "futile act" to apply for the permit. "The fact that Settles Bridge was pessimistic about its prospects for obtaining a special use permit, even if that pessimism was justified, does not prove that exhaustion of remedies would have been 'futile' as this Court has defined that term," the opinion adds.
A message left for Settles Bridge Farms’ lawyer was not immediately returned.