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Land trust moves into new offices on lot once planned for Dollar General
 tcooper  / 

What was once the center of a controversial Dollar General site plan proposal is now home to the St. Simons Land Trust.

In an interview on Thursday with land trust leadership, two words repeatedly came up: “rent free.”

“It’s just nice to be in a place owned by the land trust,” said Development Director Emily Ellison. “The landlady, she was great, but being in a place we own and can hold events and parties and speaker series is just wonderful.”

Land trust Executive Director David Pope said, so far, the new offices have met or exceeded what they expected.

The 1.47-acre piece of land at 1810 Frederica Road was the center of much controversy in 2016 when Teramore Development filed plans to build a Dollar General on the lot.

The Islands Planning Commission denied site plans for the discount retail chain twice before the developer took the county to court. Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley sided with the IPC in both cases, upholding its decisions.

Later, in March 2018, the land trust acquired the property for $1.55 million, paid in full thanks to a grant from the Anschutz Foundation, also the owners of the Sea Island Co., Pope said in a previous interview with The News.

“We’re grateful to (Teramore) because they could have said ‘No, we want to build a dollar store here,’” Pope said Thursday.

Residents of the neighboring Laurel View subdivision, next door to 1810 Frederica Road, vigorously opposed the 2016 proposal to build a Dollar General on the property. Its members worked to spread the word and encourage St. Simons Island residents to voice their concerns about the proposal.

“They called us up when we bought the place and threw a party for us,” Pope said. “We’ll be inviting them to our opening party in the coming months.”

“The day we announced the land trust had purchased this, we were inundated with thanks,” Ellison added.

Along with the new office space, the land trust plans to make good use of the spacious lot, much of which still remains undeveloped.

“The lot is a lot bigger than people think it is because the house only sits on the first third of it,” Pope said.

Four doors, two desks and the office’s conference room table were all recycled from wood that was part of the house’s construction.

A carpenter took wooden beams and boards removed from the house and refashioned them, all at the recommendation of the contractor in charge of the renovations, Shelly Renner Construction, Finance Director Sue Tuttle said.

While he didn’t want to say exactly how much the grant that was used to purchase the property was worth, Pope said it was more than enough to cover the $1.55 million purchase price and the renovations.

Converting the house to an office took time, Pope said. Contractors removed walls to open up the interior, removed some of the residential features, such as a fireplace, installed bigger windows, reworked the carport and garage area, built a larger front porch and raised ceilings where possible, he explained.

“We have room to have some events here, and (we will) be respectful to the neighbors,” Pope said.

Further plans include a hedge to buffer the neighbors from activity on the land trust’s lot and eventually opening up the property to visitors.

“While we get to enjoy the place every day as a place to work — a place to live, sometimes — it is also a place for the whole community,” Ellison said.

Eventually, passersby will be able to stop over at the offices to take a break or just enjoy the scenery.

“We would love for it to be a place for bikers riding by to stop and say ‘We’re going to walk around back there,’” Tuttle said.

All-in-all, Pope said the land trust is happy with its purchase.

“We aren’t going anywhere for the foreseeable future,” Tuttle said.

Bobby Haven/The Brunswick News 

BHS graduation

Brunswick High School seniors walk into the school gym during the processional of the 50th graduation exercises for the school Thursday. Jonathon Ebban Kirkland was the valedictorian of the class with Cannon Monroe Hutcheson earning salutatorian. Along with Kirkland and Hutcheson, students Taylor Macy Zachry and Alexandria Jean Blake were speakers for the ceremony.

Defamation claims against The News tossed
 wwolfe  / 

Superior Court Judge William Woodrum Jr. dismissed defamation claims May 15 brought against The News by former state court public defender Reid Zeh, but he allowed the complaint against the American Civil Liberties Union to continue.

May 17, the ACLU filed a notice of appeal of that order.

In his order, Woodrum stated he granted The News’ motion to dismiss pursuit to a state law against what are called SLAPPs (strategic lawsuits against public participation). The Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press calls SLAPPs “an all-too-common tool for intimidating and silencing critics of businesses….”

The state law is under O.C.G.A. § 9-11-11.1, which reads, “The General Assembly of Georgia finds and declares that it is in the public interest to encourage participation by the citizens of Georgia in matters of public significance through the exercise of their constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to petition government for redress of grievances.

“The General Assembly of Georgia further finds and declares that the valid exercise of the constitutional rights of freedom of speech and the right to petition government for a redress of grievances should not be chilled through abuse of the judicial process.”

The News contended in its motion to dismiss that its article merely repeated allegations made in the federal lawsuit brought by the ACLU. Reporting on lawsuits is protected under Georgia law, The News argued.

The situation that birthed this lawsuit began when lawyers from the ACLU sued Glynn County, Sheriff Neal Jump, former Chief Magistrate Judge Alex Atwood and Zeh, in March 2018, alleging the county ran “an unconstitutional cash bail system that discriminates against people who are financially strapped.”

Since the filing of that lawsuit, Zeh left his public position — though he remains in private practice — the General Assembly passed bail reform legislation and Atwood moved on to be commissioner of the state Department of Administrative Services. Atwood also, before he left, instituted an additional day of hearings for the newly arrested, which was believed to increase the likelihood someone detained on a misdemeanor charge could be released sooner rather than later.

However, in the original complaint, the plaintiffs’ attorneys stated that Zeh, as a state court public defender, had “a policy of not visiting public defense clients in the detention center, representing clients at their bail-setting hearing or requesting a preliminary hearing or bail-modification hearing on their behalf.”

A motion for leave to file an amended complaint June 26 on behalf of the plaintiffs led to an accusation by ACLU staff attorney Andrea Woods in a news release that Zeh essentially extorted the mother of someone he was appointed to defend in state court, for the amount of $2,500.

According to the motion to amend the complaint, “Zeh informed (Robert) Cox (Jr.) that he would only assist with his public defender case if paid $2,500. (Barbara) Hamilton, Cox’s mother, paid Zeh the $2,500, not realizing Zeh was already paid by Glynn County to provide public defense services to persons like her son.”

In his affidavit in the matter, Zeh said Cox, on April 1, 2015, “attempted to pled guilty to the misdemeanor, but the prosecutor announced his intention to transfer the case to superior court … because this was Mr. Cox’s sixth offense of shoplifting.”

Zeh said the misdemeanor subsequently became a felony, and he wasn’t involved in the upgrade in severity or the transfer of the case to a different court.

At that April 1 hearing, Zeh said Cox told the judge he needed to talk with his lawyer about the changes, but that he wasn’t representing Cox at that time and wasn’t approached “for representation on his misdemeanor charges.”

Afterward, Zeh said Cox came to his private office seeking representation on the felony matter, and Cox and later, his mother over the phone, agreed to the $2,500 fee for representation.

“At no point of time did Mr. Cox inquire about public defender services or indicate that he was looking for a public defender,” Zeh said.

He added that he was able to secure Cox’s release from jail after another arrest and obtained a dismissal of the felony charge. Zeh also asserted he never took money from a client he represented as a public defender.

In letters dated July 5, Zeh’s attorney, Brent Savage, wrote to The News and the ACLU and stated in part, “On the contrary, Mr. Zeh was retained by Mr. Cox and his mother to represent Mr. Cox with a felony case in the Superior Court of Glynn County. Such representation falls outside the scope of Mr. Zeh’s duties as the Glynn County State Court public defender.”

The letter to The News demanded the newspaper to issue a correction and retraction of the accusation, and a similar request was made of the ACLU regarding a blog post on its website, promising a defamation lawsuit was coming if those actions didn’t take place.

Recently, the Glynn County Board of Commissioners voted to settle the cash bail lawsuit with the plaintiffs — Margery Freida Mock and Eric Scott Ogden Jr. — and their attorneys, for a total of $62,500. The settlement has yet to become official, however.

Record low unemployment in April for Brunswick area
 gjackson  / 

Unemployment rates in the three-county metro Brunswick area dropped to the lowest rate ever in April, according to Georgia Department of Labor statistics announced Thursday.

The Brunswick metro area, which includes Glynn, Brantley and McIntosh counties, posted monthly gains in jobs, labor force and employed residents, according to preliminary numbers announced by Georgia Labor Commissioner Mark Butler.

“Georgia’s economy continues to be strong,” Butler said, “In April, we saw several communities set records for jobs and others set records for lowest unemployment rate. Typically, we see gains through the summer as well.”

Brunswick ended the month with 45,600 jobs, an increase of about 400 for the job total a year ago and up 500 jobs from last month’s total, according to the announcement. The region also posted gains for jobs in private services.

The unemployment rate dropped 0.6 percentage points to settle at 3 percent. A year ago, the unemployment rate was 3.5 percent. The national rate for April dropped to 3.6 percent.

The number of employed residents increased by 335 in April to give the region 51,912 employed residents.

The number of unemployment claims rose by 19 percent in April, but the numbers are down by 1 percent from the same period last year. Claims were down in manufacturing, according to the announcement.

But there are jobs available in the region for job seekers. Employ Georgia, the Department of Labor’s online job listing service at showed 536 active job postings for the metro Brunswick area in April.

Cops: SWAT arrests Brunswick man after armed standoff
 lhobbs  / 

A domestic dispute in the 3100 block of Union Street turned into an armed standoff with Brunswick Police SWAT team members Tuesday evening after the suspect allegedly vowed not to be taken alive, Police Chief Kevin Jones said.

Following two stifling hours inside a parked vehicle outside 3108 Union St., the suspect surrendered without incident after talking with two Brunswick police officers who were former classmates of his, Jones said. A handgun was found inside the vehicle, he said.

Marquis Diego Cuyler, 27, was arrested and charged with aggravated assault, making terrorist threats and obstruction of the law, according to Glynn County Detention Center records. He remained in the county jail Thursday without bond, according to jail records.

Police were called to the address at 6:45 p.m. Tuesday by a woman who said the suspect had threatened her with a gun, police said. The structure at that address comprises several apartment units. The woman told police she heard shouting from the front lawn and stepped outside to find Cuyler and his girlfriend arguing.

“That’s when he pointed the gun at her and said he was going to shoot her,” Jones said. The woman told police that Cuyler also pointed the gun at his girlfriend, according to a report.

When Cuyler was confronted by responding patrol officers, he allegedly told them he would not be taken alive. “The suspect said, ‘You’ll have to kill me,’” Jones said.

Armed with the handgun, Cuyler then climbed inside a vehicle parked in front of the address, Jones said. Brunswick’s police SWAT team responded, as did Capt. Angela Smith, the department’s trained negotiator. Jones said Cuyler remained inside the vehicle with the windows almost completely closed for the next two hours.

“The vehicle was not running, and it was incredibly hot,” Jones said. “We offered him water, but he wouldn’t open the door to take any. After he said that they were going to have to kill him, he got very concerned that we were pointing guns at him. He stayed in there for roughly two hours.”

Brunswick Police Cpl. George Thomas and officer Dereck Thomas knew Cuyler from high school and finally managed to persuade him to surrender, Jones said. “They talked to him most of the time,” Jones said. “They were able to talk him out. It was peacefully resolved and that’s what we always strive for.”