Glynn County Superior Court Judge Stephen Kelley dismissed one complaint from St. Simons Island residents in their lawsuit against the county over approval of the 50 Oaks subdivision.
A group of five St. Simons Island residents took the county to court in September over the Community Development Department director’s approval of a preliminary subdivision plat for 50 Oaks, a planned development of 54 townhouses in 15 buildings behind Bennie’s Red Barn on North Harrington Road.
Construction hasn’t started due to the lawsuit. Plaintiffs claim mistakes in a 2005 rezoning mean the procedure was not done properly and is invalid, and is not compliant with local ordinance besides. As such the county shouldn’t have approved 50 Oaks’ preliminary subdivision plat, they claim.
Attorneys for the county and 50 Oaks’ developers, however, maintain the rezoning was done correctly and that the window to appeal that rezoning has long since passed.
While three more claims remain, Kelley dismissed the plaintiffs’ request that he review and reverse the community development director’s decision.
“An opinion came out from the Georgia Supreme Court that’s pretty hard to get around. The argument that (certiorari) is the wrong remedy for this kind of lawsuit,” said Geremy Gregory, an attorney for the residents.
The opinion he referred to came out of the Housing Authority of Augusta v. Gould lawsuit, which the Supreme Court ruled on in March.
When an employee of the Housing Authority of Augusta cut off Carrie Gould’s housing assistance, Gould appealed the decision. A hearing officer, also an employee of the authority, listened to both sides and upheld the employee’s decision.
She then sought a writ of certiorari — which, if granted, means a higher court will review the ruling made by a lower decision-making entity, in this case, the housing authority — from Richmond County Superior Court, or to have the hearing officer’s decision reversed and to be given a new hearing on the decision.
The writ of certiorari only applies when the decision being appealed is judicial or quasi-judicial, and the superior court judge initially found it met the criteria. The authority fought back, however, and got the case dismissed.
The following decision by the Georgia Court of Appeals reversed the superior court’s ruling.
“We agree with Gould that the hearing officer’s decision is subject to review on certiorari because the hearing was quasi-judicial in nature and the hearing officer exercised judicial powers. Thus, we reverse the superior court’s dismissal of the petition,” the appeals court decision states.
First, for an act to be quasi-judicial “all parties are as a matter of right entitled to notice and to a hearing, with the opportunity afforded to present evidence under judicial forms of procedure.”
Second, the Supreme Court stated a quasi-judicial act is “akin to a judicial act,” in that it involves “an ascertainment of the relevant facts from evidence presented and an application of pre-existing legal standards to those facts.”
Finally, the decision must be “sufficiently final, binding and conclusive of the rights of the parties” for it to be considered quasi-judicial.
The state Supreme Court found the housing authority’s decision was not quasi-judicial in that it did not meet the third criteria.
It was not “sufficiently final, binding and conclusive of the rights of the parties” to qualify.
Based on that case, Kelley said he couldn’t classify Thompson’s decision as quasi-judicial because the parties were not entitled to notice and to a hearing, and could not grant the plaintiffs request for a writ of certiorari.
“Where (the Glynn County subdivision regulations do) not provide for notice and a hearing before a decision is made on an application for preliminary plat approval, much less one involving judicial forms of procedure or a decisional process properly characterized as judicial in nature, the court cannot find that the first indicia of a quasi-judicial act is met,” Kelley wrote.
“That’s the one that hung us up because Glynn County has taken away that procedure,” Gregory said.
Under the Islands Planning Commission’s public comment policy, citizens were allowed hearings on preliminary subdivision plat applications until June 2018, when the Glynn County Commission shifted the responsibility of approving or denying preliminary plats from the IPC to the Community Development Department’s director.
Claims for injunctive and declaratory relief remain. The St. Simons residents are also seeking a writ of mandamus, which would require the county to undo the original rezoning.