Glynn County headed to court yet again Wednesday to defend itself from a lawsuit brought by county residents over a subdivision.
The lawsuit stems from the county Community Development Department’s approval of a preliminary subdivision plat for Fifty Oaks, proposed to be built behind Bennie’s Red Barn on South Harrington Road.
Attorneys Geremy Gregory and Chris Anulewicz, both with law firm Balch and Bingham, filed the lawsuit in September on behalf of St. Simons Island residents Mark Forsling, George and Donna Hoh, Thomas Lawton Nalley and Shedrick Ramsey challenging the approval.
Among many points Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley heard during Wednesday’s six-hour hearing was an allegation that Community Development Director Pamela Thompson was in error when she approved the plat.
The Glynn County Commission voted to rezone the property in question from R-6 residential to a planned development in 2005. The Fifty Oaks subdivision could not be built in an R-6 zone, but it is compliant with the property’s current planned development text, according to the county’s planning and zoning division.
There was a clear legal error that invalidated that rezoning, Gregory alleged.
The owner of the property in question, the Don and Denese Gentile Family Trust, didn’t own a sliver of the property when it was first rezoned to planned development, Gregory alleged.
He referred to it as the Davis Tract — a long, roughly 1.1-acre parcel that extended into the property. The Fifty Oaks subdivision plat showed the main road in the proposed subdivision almost entirely contained within that 1.1-acre tract.
The Gentile Trust formally acquired the property in 2014, but the county commission rezoned the whole tract in 2005, Gregory said. Because the Gentile Trust didn’t own the Davis Tract at the time, the rezoning was invalid because county ordinance prohibits one individual rezoning another’s property without their express consent.
St. Simons Island attorney Jason Tate, representing the Gentile Trust, countered that the court was hearing a challenge to the preliminary plat that was approved, not the zoning of the property.
If the plaintiffs wanted to challenge the underlying zoning, they were 15 years too late, he said. County code puts a 30-day time limit on challenging zoning decisions.
Gregory responded, saying that he wasn’t challenging the zoning. The plaintiffs were alleging that it had never taken effect because the Gentile Trust could not legally rezone the David Tract.
The 2005 rezoning and subsequent amendments in 2008 and 2009 were not relevant to the case at hand, said Tate. The plaintiffs were challenging the plat, not the underlying zoning.
Brunswick attorney Brad Watkins, representing the county, responded by asking why the court was looking back that far. The record for this case didn’t include any documents about the 2005 rezoning. In addition, he said the court didn’t have the jurisdiction to make a decision on that as it was a zoning issue and the time limit had long since passed to challenge it.
As a judge at the appellate level, Kelley said he had a duty to look at the case more broadly than that.
If he looked at the facts and found that there was a violation of the law, he had to correct it.
Tate said the county commission went through the noticing and public hearing process before approving a master plan for the planned development, which meant the public had been given its due process. That master plan indicated the Davis Tract was zoned planned development, and it was that master plan that counted as a rezoning of the property.
Kelley didn’t entirely buy that answer.
“If it was rezoned, you would think there would be some evidence that they went through the normal process and there would be something in the county commission minutes that would say the Davis Tract was rezoned,” Kelley said. “It’s clear (the Gentile Trust) rezoned land that didn’t belong to (it).”
Watkins, however, said the Gentile Trust has always maintained that it had owned the property, going back to 2005, and nothing in the records accepted by the court indicated the trust hasn’t always owned the property.
Kelley asked if anything in the record could potentially indicate the trust’s supposed ownership of the property in 2005.
Tate said the trust signed as the owner of the property on the rezoning request, which could be found in the minutes of the meeting at which the county commission voted to rezone the property in 2005. No one questioned ownership at that time, he added.
It was evident by looking at property records at the time that the trust didn’t own the property until 2014, Gregory responded.
Tate and Watkins maintained that all discussion of the underlying rezoning was irrelevant to the lawsuit at hand. The county could easily prove Pamela Thompson had done her job as laid out in the county’s ordinances and it led to the approval of the Fifty Oaks preliminary plat, which is all the defendants needed to do by law, Tate said.
The plaintiffs may have a case that the county doesn’t give the public due process in preliminary subdivision plat decisions, but that wasn’t the subject at issue, Kelly said.
Kelley listened to the attorneys talk about many aspects of the case over the six-hour hearing, but said he ultimately had two things to consider: whether or not the residents had standing and the issue of the plat and the underlying zoning itself.
Cases involving property rights need to be resolved as soon as possible, Kelley said. Instead of drafting a decision from scratch, Kelley asked how long it would take the two sides to draft their own proposed rulings.
Both sides said it would take around two weeks, which Kelley said was acceptable.
The hearing adjourned with no ruling.