Eight St. Simons Island residents and a Sea Island resident allege in a lawsuit that the Glynn County Commission violated state and local law in taking away planning commission authority in June.
County commissioners voted on two amendments in June, one to the zoning ordinance and another to the subdivision regulations. In doing so, it removed the Mainland and Islands planning commissions’ authority to rule on preliminary subdivision plats, as well as its power to unilaterally approve or deny site plans by creating a process for developers to appeal site plan denials to the county commission.
Preliminary plats are now reviewed and approved internally by Community Development Department staff.
County commissioners gave a number of reasons for the move, including animosity between IPC members and county staff and denials of preliminary plats and site plans without proper citation of ordinance violations.
However, in doing so the county commission violated state open records and meetings law, state zoning law and its own zoning ordinance, according to the complaint filed by Augusta attorney David Hudson.
Hudson, with Hull Barrett law firm, also represents The News in some matters as an attorney for the Georgia Press Association.
The complaint alleges a number of procedural violations.
Hudson states in the complaint that notices published in The News’ classifieds section of public hearings on the two amendments “did not give a ‘description of the proposed amendments’” as required by the county’s zoning ordinance.
County ordinance requires notices of public hearings on ordinance amendments to include when and where the meeting will happen as well as a description of the amendments but doesn’t say exactly what the description should include.
“It is the common understanding of the word (description) — it should communicate to the citizens what the proposed amendment seeks to accomplish,” Hudson said in an email on Friday.
The June 2 notice for a zoning ordinance amendment hearing reads, “The proposed amendments include, but are not limited to, revisions to the site plan review and approval process.”
Similarly, the notice for the subdivision regulations amendment says “The proposed amendments include, but are not limited to, revisions to the subdivision review and approval process.”
Further, the complaint states that the notices were invalid as they gave notice of hearings at a special called joint meeting of both planning commissions.
While the ordinance does allow for public hearings and official action on ordinance amendments during special called meetings, Hudson argues that ordinance amendment hearings are supposed to be held during regular meetings prior to any official action — even if that action is taken at a different meeting.
“This is to insure that these important changes are fully disclosed to the citizens and that they have ample opportunity to express their views to the decision makers,” Hudson said in the email.
In addition, the complaint states that agendas released before the meeting in June at which the votes were taken didn’t give notice that the county commission would vote on the amendments, only that a public hearing would be held on them.
Finally, the complaint states that the county commission voted against the planning commissions’ recommendations on by both the subdivision regulations and zoning ordinance amendments, which Hudson claims the zoning ordinance prohibits.
The ordinance section cited states that, after a zoning change or ordinance amendment application is voted on the planning commission, “the application shall not be amended except as directed by the planning commission in their recommendation motion.”
“This means that on matters within the jurisdiction of the planning commissions, the county commission can only approve or reject amendments as directed by the planning commissions, and in the present case, the county commission approved amendments not directed by the planning commissions,” Hudson said in the email.
The complaint states that the nine plaintiffs ask the court to declare both ordinance amendments invalid and unenforceable.
Also in the complaint, all eight of the St. Simons Island residents are stated to be in proximity to the proposed Fifty Oaks development, which would include 54 residential units in 15 row houses off South Harrington Road behind Bennie’s Red Barn.
The plaintiffs are Shedrick Ramsey, Donna and George Hoh, Thomas Nalley, Hazel Nunnally, Steve Jackson, Rose Murphy and Orange Moore of St. Simons Island and Jane Fraser of Sea Island.
It further states that four of the island residents would “suffer damage from any approval of that project under improperly adopted county ordinance amendments.”
The developers of Fifty Oaks withdrew their preliminary subdivision plat application after questions were raised about ownership rights over the property. Planning Manager Stephanie Leif said last month the developers filed a new plat with the Community Development Department after the county commission changed the rules.