The ongoing saga of development of the former Lanier Golf Club took another turn on Monday after developers filed a lawsuit and ethics complaint against Forsyth County Board of Commissioners Chairwoman Laura Semanson.
In the suit filed in the Superior Court of Forsyth County, Fields Farm of Forsyth, LLC, the owner of the property of Buford Dam Road, and Reid and Reid Construction, LLC, the developer, said Semanson “has engaged in an ongoing crusade to prevent development of the property in order to curry with the neighboring residents who want the property to remain a golf club.”
The suit, which was filed against Semanson in her individual capacity, alleges that her claims “were falsely and maliciously made” and her actions “interfered with and impaired the plaintiffs’ ability to satisfy contractual deadlines” related to the project.
The ethics complaint echoes the issues of the suit.
Semanson, who represents District 5 on the commission, was first elected in 2016 and was unanimously selected as chairwoman on Jan. 3. When reached by phone late on Monday, Semanson said her attorneys were reviewing all the information.
The plaintiffs are seeking damages for “slander and tortious interference with contractual and business obligations” for an amount to be determined, a court order for Semanson to “cease all interference” with development of the property, damages for a yet-to-be-determined amount for constitutional violations and torts, punitive damages, attorney’s fees and expenses and “such other relief” granted by the court.
The constitutional violations include substantive due process and equal protection violations of the state constitution and violations of the Fifth and Fourteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution.
Those violations were “pled in the alternative to other counts” as state law requires claims against government officials to also be brought against the official in their individual capacity.
The former golf course is currently being developed to include 321 residential units made up of 71 townhomes, 155 single-family detached houses and 95 single-family residential Res-2 units.
Though the zoning decisions were made in late 2016 and early 2017, the development gained renewed interest after the club – which was built in the 1960s – closed and work began on the property.
Fields Farm purchased the land on Sept. 28, 2018 and has a contract to develop and deliver the homes to Pulte Home Corporation, which will handle the sale.
The suit details a 9.6-acre parcel on the north end of the property with an irrigation pond and earthen dam and says the officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said in October the dam encroached into a flowage easement and “demanded it be removed.”
The plaintiffs allege Semanson has “made numerous attempts” to have work stopped by county, state and federal agencies and said “work on the property was not being performed in accordance with an approved plan and … said work was not permitted,” citing comments made at a Dec. 20, 2018 meeting.
“This is about the fact that we’ve got a dam that is a matter of controversy that has been disturbed to the point that it is in the process of failure and right now we’re at a critical point, we have to get the bleeding to stop,” Semanson said at that meeting, as reported by the Forsyth County News.
It is also alleged that Semanson made comments that the property was contaminated from the “storage of chemicals, including fertilizers containing arsenic and other heavy metals.”
The plaintiffs reportedly received a letter from an attorney representing Pulte on Jan. 4 saying the statements by neighbors and Semanson were a material concern and a potential breach of the contract.
The suit also says Semanson “improperly and unlawfully abused her position and exceeded her authority as a county commissioner” and the plaintiffs “suffered monetary and other injuries” as a result of Semanson’s actions.
Issues surrounding the golf course go back more than a decade.
In 2007, commissioners denied rezoning the property from agriculture to master planned district. None of the current commissioners were on the board at that time.
Following a successful lawsuit by owners, the property was court-ordered rezoned in 2011.
That decision rezoned the 172-acre golf course from agriculture district to master planned district on 93.8 acres off Buford Dam Road and 78.6 acres to single-family residential Res-2 district south of the intersection of Fairway Drive and Fairway Lane.
Another lawsuit filed by neighbors in 2007, who felt there was an “implied covenant” not to build on the property, was dropped in 2012 after the Georgia Supreme Court declined to hear the case.
Golf course owners sought and won attorney’s fees for the suit in 2013.
The current battle to rezone the golf course appeared to be finished in December 2016, when Forsyth County Commissioners voted 3-2, with then-District 5 Commissioner Jim Boff and District 3 Commissioner Todd Levent opposed, to approve two zoning amendment requests tied to the course.
The approval cleared the way for residential development of the golf course.
In March 2017, after Semanson replaced Boff as commissioner, the commission voted 4-1, with Semanson opposed, to rezone an additional four parcels surrounded by the golf course from agriculture district, A1, to master planned district, MPD. Prior to approval, Semanson made a motion to deny the zoning but did not receive a second.