Justia Zoning, Planning & Land Use Opinion Summaries

Articles Posted in Supreme Court of Georgia

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Mercer University sought immunity from liability for claims by the estate and family of Sally Stofer, who was fatally injured when she fell at a free concert hosted by the university at Washington Park in Macon, Georgia in July 2014. The park was owned by Macon-Bibb County, but Mercer had a permit to use the park for its concert series. The concert series was planned, promoted, and hosted by Mercer’s College Hill Alliance, a division of Mercer whose stated mission is to foster neighborhood revitalization for Macon’s College Hill Corridor. The trial court concluded, and the Court of Appeals agreed, that defendant was not entitled to summary judgment on its claim of immunity under Georgia’s Recreational Property Act, given evidence that Mercer hosted the concert and it might (at least indirectly) benefit financially from the event. In arriving at this conclusion, the Georgia Supreme Court surmised the Court of Appeals was led astray by language in the Supreme Court’s most recent relevant decision that was inconsistent with previous case law. After careful consideration of the statutory text and a thorough review of the case law, the Georgia Supreme Court concluded that whether immunity was available under this provision requires a determination of the true scope and nature of the landowner’s invitation to use its property, and this determination properly is informed by two related considerations: (1) the nature of the activity that constitutes the use of the property in which people have been invited to engage, and (2) the nature of the property that people have been invited to use. Clarifying that considerations of evidence of Mercer’s subjective motivations in hosting the concert and some speculation of the indirect benefits Mercer might have received as a result of the concert were generally improper, the Supreme Court vacated the Court of Appeals’ decision and remanded the case with direction that the court revisit its analysis consistent with the standard that was clarified here. View "Mercer University v. Stofer" on Justia Law

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In 2013, a small business jet crashed into a Georgia Power Company transmission pole on Milliken & Company’s property near the Thomson-McDuffie Regional Airport in Thomson, Georgia. The two pilots were injured and the five passengers died. In the wake of the crash, the pilots and the families of the deceased passengers filed a total of seven lawsuits against multiple defendants, including Georgia Power and Milliken. The complaints in those seven suits alleged that a transmission pole located on Milliken’s property was negligently erected and maintained within the airport’s protected airspace. The record evidence showed Georgia Power constructed the transmission pole on Milliken’s property for the purpose of providing electricity to Milliken’s manufacturing-plant expansion, and that the pole was constructed pursuant to a 1989 Easement between Georgia Power and Milliken. In each of the seven suits, Milliken filed identical cross-claims against Georgia Power, alleging that Georgia Power was contractually obligated to indemnify Milliken “for all sums that Plaintiffs may recover from Milliken” under Paragraph 12 of the Easement. Georgia Power moved for summary judgment on the crossclaims, which were granted. The trial court reasoned Paragraph 12 of the Easement operated as a covenant not to sue, rather than as an indemnity agreement, because it “nowhere contains the word ‘indemnity’” and “it is not so comprehensive regarding protection from liability.” The Court of Appeals affirmed summary judgment to six cases. Rather than adopt the trial court’s reasoning, the appellate court held that the provision was an indemnity agreement and affirmed the trial court by applying Georgia’s anti-indemnity statute, OCGA 13-8-2 (b), to determine that Paragraph 12 of the Easement was “void as against public policy,” a theory argued before the trial court but argued or briefed before the Court of Appeals. The Georgia Supreme Court determined the Court of Appeals erred in its construction and application of OCGA 13-8-2(b), vacated the judgment and remanded for the lower court to consider whether, in the first instance, the trial court’s rationale for granting Georgia Power’s motions for summary judgment and any other arguments properly before the Court of Appeals. View "Milliken & Co. v. Georgia Power Co." on Justia Law

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At issue in this case is whether the Environmental Protection Division of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (“EPD”) properly issued a permit to the City of Guyton to build and operate a land application system (“LAS”) that would apply treated wastewater to a tract of land through spray irrigation. Craig Barrow III challenged the issuance of that permit, arguing that, among other things, EPD issued the permit in violation of a water quality standard, Ga. Comp. R. & Regs., r. 391-3-6-.03 (2) (b) (ii) (the “antidegradation rule”), because it failed to determine whether any resulting degradation of water quality in the State waters surrounding the proposed LAS was necessary to accommodate important economic or social development in the area. An administrative law judge rejected Barrow’s argument, finding that the rule required an antidegradation analysis only for point source discharges of pollutants and the LAS at issue was a nonpoint source discharge. The superior court affirmed the administrative ruling. The Court of Appeals reversed, concluding that the plain language of the antidegradation rule required EPD to perform the antidegradation analysis for nonpoint source discharges, and that EPD’s internal guidelines to the contrary did not warrant deference. The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari review in this matter to consider what level of deference courts should afford EPD's interpretation of the antidegradation rule, and whether that regulation required an antidegradation analysis for nonpint source discharges. The Court concluded the Court of Appeals was correct that the antidegradation rule was unambiguous: the text and legal context of the regulation showed that an antidegradation analysis was required only for point sources, not nonpoint sources. Therefore, the Court reversed. View "City of Guyton v. Barrow" on Justia Law

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In December 2017, the City of Atlanta enacted an ordinance to annex certain property that lies within the Fulton County Industrial District. Fulton County filed a lawsuit for declaratory and injunctive relief against the City and several of its officers, asserting that the annexation of property within the District was prohibited by a local constitutional amendment ratified in 1979. In response, the City argued that the 1979 amendment was never constitutionally adopted, that it was repealed in any event by the adoption of the Constitution of 1983, and that local laws purporting to continue the amendment are themselves unconstitutional. The trial court agreed, and it held, among other things, that the 1979 amendment was enacted in violation of the constitutional “single subject” rule. See Ga. Const. of 1976, Art. XII, Sec. I, Par. I. The County appealed, but finding no error in the trial court's judgment, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed. View "Fulton County v. City of Atlanta" on Justia Law

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Morgan County, Georgia appealed a trial court’s order dismissing Christine May’s criminal citation for violating the County’s amended zoning ordinance by renting out her house near Lake Oconee for a week. The court concluded that the zoning ordinance in effect at the time May began renting her house for short periods was unconstitutionally vague as applied, meaning that her use of the house for such rentals was “grandfathered” and not subject to the amended ordinance’s explicit prohibition of short-term rentals for fewer than 30 days. May cross-appealed, but the Georgia Supreme Court did not address her claimed errors, because it affirmed the trial court’s dismissal of her citation. View "Morgan County v. May" on Justia Law

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In August 2015, Doug and Lynda Tatum applied to the Pickens County Board of Commissioners for a conditional use permit for a 75-acre parcel near Jasper. The application was referred to the Pickens County Planning Commission for a hearing. Following the publication of notice, the Planning Commission held a hearing in October 2015, at which several neighbors appeared and objected to the application. The Planning Commission nevertheless recommended that the application be approved, and in January 2016, the Board approved it. Some of the neighbors filed a petition for judicial review, asserting that they were denied a meaningful opportunity to be heard on the application. The neighbors moved for summary judgment, but the superior court denied it, agreeing with the Board that the notice of the October 2015 hearing was enough to satisfy the ZPL. The neighbors appealed, and the Court of Appeals affirmed. The Georgia Supreme Court reversed, finding the problem with the Board decision was that it rested upon the premise that the October 2015 hearing before the Planning Commission (and the notice of that hearing) was enough to satisfy the notice-and-hearing requirements of the ZPL. "[T]he whole point of the statutory notice-and-hearing requirements is to afford interested citizens a meaningful opportunity to be heard on a proposed zoning decision. [. . .] when a hearing is too attenuated in time or circumstance from the final zoning decision, another hearing may be required." The Planning Commission in this case had no authority to make a final zoning decision, and it could only make recommendations to the Board. If an adequate record of the hearing before the Planning Commission had been made and transmitted to the Board — such that the final zoning decision of the Board could be said to have been meaningfully informed by what happened at the hearing — the hearing before the Planning Commission might satisfy the requirements of the ZPL. "But it appears that the only record of that hearing is a one-page memorandum to the Board" failed to disclose even the general nature of “considerable objections.” Accordingly, it could not be said that the hearing before the Planning Commission afforded interested citizens a meaningful opportunity to be heard by the Board on the application for a conditional use permit, and the October 2015 hearing does not satisfy the notice-and-hearing requirements of the ZPL. View "Hoechstetter v. Pickens County" on Justia Law

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Appellant Diversified Holdings, LLP (“Diversified”) and the City of Suwanee (“the City”) were involved in a zoning dispute regarding the status of 30 acres of undeveloped land located in the City (“Property”). On the merits of the issues presented, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the trial court’s decision that there was no error in denying Diversified’s application to rezone the Property. But the Court clarified that the “substantially advances” standard that derives from constitutional due process guarantees had no place in an eminent domain or inverse condemnation proceeding. “Consequently, where a landowner claims harm from a particular zoning classification, inverse condemnation is not an available remedy unless the landowner can meet the separate and distinct requirements for such a claim.” The Court did not reach the City’s contention on cross appeal that the trial court erred in concluding that Diversified showed a substantial detriment based on the value of the Property as currently zoned versus its value if rezoned. View "Diversified Holdings, LLP v. City of Suwanee" on Justia Law

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This case concerns a small grocery store on Allgood Road in Marietta and, specifically the parcel of land on which that store sat. Ray Summerour owned the land for nearly three decades; the City of Marietta wanted to acquire the land to build a public park. When the City was unable to negotiate a voluntary sale of the parcel, it resolved to take the land by eminent domain, and it filed a petition to condemn the property. Following an evidentiary hearing before a special master, the superior court adopted the return and entered an order of condemnation. Summerour appealed, and the Court of Appeals set aside the condemnation order, reasoning that when the City attempted to negotiate a voluntary sale of the land, it failed to fulfill its obligations under OCGA 22-1-9. The Court of Appeals directed that the case be remanded for the superior court to consider whether the failure to comply with Section 22-1-9 amounted to bad faith. The Georgia Supreme Court issued a writ of certiorari to review the decision of the Court of Appeals, and held that compliance with Section 22-1-9 was an essential prerequisite to the filing of a petition to condemn, that the City failed in this case to fulfill that prerequisite, and that its petition to condemn, therefore, must be dismissed, irrespective of bad faith. View "City of Marietta v. Summerour" on Justia Law

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This case presented challenges to a municipal zoning ordinance. Because the property owners abandoned their claim that the ordinance was unconstitutionally enacted and did not show that it was unconstitutionally vague as applied to them or that it unconstitutionally interfered with their property rights, the Georgia Supreme Court affirmed the superior court’s grant of summary judgment to the city. View "Edwards v. City of Warner Robins" on Justia Law

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In May 2007, the Medical Center Hospital Authority (“Hospital Authority”) filed an action against the Columbus Board of Tax Assessors and related parties (together, “the Tax Board”) in which it sought a declaration that its leasehold interest in a building located on real property owned by a private entity constituted public property exempt from ad valorem taxation under OCGA 48-5-41 (a) (1). The superior court granted summary judgment to the Hospital Authority, finding that the Hospital Authority’s leasehold interest qualified as “public property,” and was thus exempt from ad valorem property taxation. The Tax Board appealed this decision to the Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court’s grant of summary judgment. The Georgia Supreme Court granted certiorari to decide whether the Court of Appeals erred in determining that two prior bond validation orders conclusively determined, for purposes of OCGA 48-5-41 (a) (1) (A), that the property at issue was “public property” exempt from ad valorem taxation. The Court held that these orders did not conclusively establish that the Hospital Authority’s leasehold interest was “public property” exempt from ad valorem taxes and therefore reversed the Court of Appeals and remanded this case for further proceedings. View "Columbus Board of Tax Assessors v. Medical Center Hospital Authority" on Justia Law