Gwinnett loses Ga. Supreme Court ruling in stormwater case

Gwinnett’s government will have to divert stormwater causing a problem for a Lawrenceville couple after the construction of the Sugarloaf Parkway extension.

The Supreme Court of Georgia ruled unanimously Monday, upholding a lower court’s decision, that the county must stop water that this flowing through the yard of Gerard and Jewell McManus because of the project.

The couple lives on a 7.57-acre homestead on Martins Chapel Road outside Lawrenceville. According to court documents, the county began work on the Sugarloaf Parkway extension adjacent to and uphill from the McManuses’ property. The couple complained “almost immediately” about an increase to stormwater runoff and sediment. According to the claims, the construction damaged ponds, eroded the driveway, destroyed a natural spring and caused pollution on the property. The couple sued in 2010.

County officials argued under a pre-trial injunction that the county would have to construct a new system and no longer a drainage easement that runs across the McManuses property. That would cost the county millions, the documents said.

Before the Feb. 2012 ruling of the trial court, which said that the county had access to the drainage easement but did not have a right to increase the water flow through it, the county constructed a permanent detenion pond unhill from the property, taking the place of a temporary sediment pond meant to drain water through the drainage easement.

But the McManuses said the detention pond, which replaced a natural pond, produced more runoff and had a channel and spillway that directed the water onto their property. The couple filed a motion of interlocutory injunction to stop the country from causing more damage while the litigation was pending. The court granted the motion, directing the county to undertake 26 measures to halt the runoff, but the county appealed that to the state Supreme Court.

The court said that the county can use the easement for drainage but must stop the increase.

“The injunction explicitly acknowledges the existence of the easement and orders the County merely to stop ‘increased’ runoff, a term that most reasonably is understood in context to refer to the increase in water sediment runoff that repeatedly has exceeded the bounds of the easement. And nowhere in the order did the trial court say that the County was prohibited altogether from using the easement or that it must stop all runoff onto the McManus property,” Justice Keith Blackwell wrote in the Supreme Court ruling.

“‘[I]t was within the discretion of the trial court to determine whether and how to require’ the County to keep the runoff within the bounds of the easement pending further proceedings, and ‘the trial court did not clearly err when it determined that an adequate cure for the run-off problem required…implementation of [the interim remedial measures contained in the order],’” the opinion said. “We see no abuse of the substantial discretion of the trial court to award interlocutory injunctive relief to keep the McManuses from further harm pending the resolution of this lawsuit.”

Further information on the cost of the drainage improvements was not immediately available.

“The underlying case is still active litigation in the trial court so it is premature to provide comment at this point,” Chairwoman Charlotte Nash said.

Matt Reeves, an attorney for the McManuses, said the couple saw the problem coming when they noticed that their neighbors’ homes would be used for the extension. The pair are glad to finally see some work come to solve the problem, as the county must act within 30 days.

“It makes a big mess all over their property,” he said. “We hope (this orders) makes things better. … It’s a good ruling for private property rights.”

Reeves said the case will now head back to Gwinnett Superior Court, so that a jury can determine damages. That could add hundreds of thousands of dollars more onto the nearly $3 million the stormwater fix could cost.