Maxie Price, the owner of several parcels of land at the Oconee Connector that were denied a rezone in February for a Publix and shopping center, has filed suit against the county.
The plaintiff claims that because the previous owner had given right-of-way to the county with the expectation that a median opening on the Oconee Connector would be used as a commercial access for the property.
On March 18, 1997, the county accepted a right-of-way deed that “incorporated by reference a plat of survey that included the future median opening and plaintiff’s right of access,” according to the lawsuit, which was filed March 6 by David F. Ellison of Fortson, Bentley and Griffin, P.A.
The plaintiff, Price, did not purchase the property until Feb. 21, 2006. However, representatives for Price have
dug up government documents that they believe support Price’s position.
For example, a Feb. 19, 1997 letter from then-Georgia Department of Transportation Commissioner Wayne Shackelford to a law firm representing the then-property owner, James McDonald, states, “The available frontage between the median opening and the new intersection of Mars Hill Road/relocated Epps ridge Road and Daniels Bridge Road may accommodate commercial driveway access.”
Shackelford’s letter continued, “Also, the issue of cross easement access for the fire station to utilize the aforementioned median opening was a condition to our granting this median opening.”
A 1997 memorandum-of-agreement with the county states, “The county agrees to permit commercial access curb cuts located at (i) Station 30 on the new relocated Epps Bridge Road and (ii) Station 63 and 50 on the new relocated Mars Hill Road.”
Though no longer the property owner, McDonald answered landscape architect Ken Beall’s request to give his recollection of the agreement.
In a Feb. 25, 2021 letter to Beall, McDonald wrote, “The plan presented by Mr. Ellis [of LRE Engineering] suggested an urban interchange along with the median cut. Commissioner Shackelford was opposed to the urban interchange in that he said he had just come from an accident on I-85/Gwinnett due to traffic backing up off the interchange. However, he did agree to allow the median cut at 660 feet from [Ga.] 316 on the Oconee Connector.”
“That was the primary concession of value we received for the donation of property,” stated McDonald’s letter.
“Given this, you would think a signal light synchronized with the light at Mars Hill/Oconee Connector would be required to facilitate traffic flow and prevent backup of traffic. If not, what value is the median cut in the first place, and I do not think we would have donated the 15 acres for nothing in return?”
In November 2022, attorney Ellison sent a five-page letter to the BOC stating why it would be unconstitutional for the board to deny a rezone for Price’s property. He cited Beall’s research that former BOC chairmen Wendell Dawson and Melvin Davis were in agreement to commercial access to the median break, as well as an April 6, 2021 correspondence with a representative of GDOT.
“This letter confirms that GDOT will honor previous commitments and include the accommodation for a full-access commercial median break and driveways in the development of the new interchange at Ga. 316 and the Oconee Connector,” GDOT Chief Engineer Meg B. Pirkle wrote in the April 2021 letter.
The lawsuit states that the property has remained vacant for the past 30 years under current zoning regulations, even though the surrounding commercial zoning districts have thrived. In addition to the construction of SpringHill Suites in 2008, QuikTrip was built in 2010 and First Madison Bank & Trust was built in 2018.
The property is designated as “regional center” on the county’s future development character area map. Primarily land uses for “regional center” include “department stores, large markers and individual big-box retail stores,” according to the Oconee County Comprehensive Plan.
The Oconee Planning and Code Enforcement Department, which had recommended approval of the Publix shopping center with conditions, wrote in an analysis, “The proposed development is in conformity with the Future Development Map and goals and objectives of the Oconee County Comprehensive Plan.”
The lawsuit alleges that the current zoning classification violates the takings clause of the United States Constitution and Georgia Constitution.
“The defendants have taken or damaged plaintiff’s property without first paying just and adequate compensation to the plaintiff,” states the lawsuit.
As of press time, the BOC had not yet submitted its legal response.
At the February meeting when the rezone was denied, BOC Chairman John Daniell stated that there was no proof that the county guaranteed a “signalized” access to the median cut, as opposed to right-in, right-out access.
County Attorney Daniel Haygood also said that because the intended use of a median cut was not in the official minutes, it would not be legally blinding.
During the hearing, several commissioners cited traffic and safety concerns, echoing the worries of local citizens.
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