The City of Suwanee has won its appeal of a $1.8 million jury award to developers Settles Bridge Farm LLC, in the final development of a legal battle that dates to 2008. Settles Bridge Farm LLC is led by former Gwinnett homebuilders Brad Williams, of Monroe, and David Bowling of Snellville.
In an opinion released Monday (February 18), the Georgia Supreme Court ruled that the developers filed their lawsuit prematurely, and that the case should have been dismissed and never come to trial.
“We agree with the City that Settles Bridge should have exhausted its administrative remedies prior to initiating litigation in this matter, and we therefore reverse the judgment entered against the City,” says the opinion, which was written by Chief Justice Carol Hunstein.
The Gwinnett Superior Court erred in finding that it would have been a “futile act” for Settles Bridge to apply for a special use permit, according to the Georgia high court.
In August 2011, a Gwinnett Superior Court jury sided with the developers in the lawsuit, which was filed in 2008, and awarded the developers $1.8 million. Judge Warren Davis later upheld the jury award.
The case arose in 2008, when Suwanee enacted a special-use permit to regulate the size of a school that could be built in the Moore Road area. The developers had a contract to sell a 36-acre tract of land to Notre Dame Academy of Duluth, which wanted to build a new facility in the area.
The contract was for about $8 million. The jury award appeared to be the difference between the sales price and the $6.2 million that Settles Bridge originally paid for the land, which was zoned residential.
The developers and Notre Dame Academy never tested Suwanee's special-use permit process. They testified that they felt it would have been futile. Notre Dame Academy canceled the sales deal and settled its own lawsuit with Suwanee over the matter.
“As a general rule, before seeking a judicial determination that a local regulation is unconstitutional as applied to its property, a party must first apply to local authorities for relief,” the Georgia Supreme Court opinion says. “Here, to satisfy the exhaustion requirement, Settles Bridge should have submitted a special use permit application to the City Planning Commission for its review, to be followed by City Council review. Because Settles Bridge failed to apply for a permit, it did not exhaust its administrative remedies in this case.”
Attorneys for the city and the developers argued their cases before the Georgia high court in October 2012.