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Here’s the latest on the ethics lawsuit against Forsyth County Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson
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Laura Semanson

A flurry of motions and documents have been filed in Forsyth County Superior Court in recent months, bringing updates to a lawsuit and ethics complaint filed against Forsyth County Commission Chairwoman Laura Semanson in early January surrounding the former Lanier Golf Club development.

In a suit filed by Fields Farm of Forsyth LLC, the owner of the property of Buford Dam Road, and Reid and Reid Construction LLC, the developer, parties allege that 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.”

 A response by Semanson’s attorney Timothy Buckley filed in February denies each of the complaint’s accusations, calling the claims “moot” and stating that they are barred by “official, qualified, governmental and sovereign immunity” which protects county employees who are sued in their official capacities.

Buckley goes on to state that Semanson is not liable for any damages suffered by Fields Farm of Forsyth LLC, or Reid and Reid Construction LLC, because, “damages, if any, are due to the acts and omissions of individuals and entities other than [Semanson].”

 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 officials with the Army Corps of Engineers said in October that 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.

The suit seeks damages for slander, “tortious interference with contractual and business obligations,” constitutional violations and torts, as well as punitive damages, attorney’s fees and expenses and “such other relief” granted by the court.

A motion to dismiss, also filed by Buckley in February, states that the complaint should be dismissed entirely for several reasons, including Semanson’s reported protection by sovereign immunity, Semanson’s alleged inability to issue stop work orders on developments and the fact that plaintiffs have allegedly “failed to exhaust their administrative remedies.”

“Plaintiffs have yet to file an appeal before the Forsyth County Board of Appeals specifying any challenged action or determination,” the motion states. “Even if plaintiffs had exhausted all administrative remedies, plaintiffs have improperly brought this action in the Superior Court of Forsyth County.”

The motion also states that claims cannot be made against Semanson in her individual capacity due to statutory and official immunity. Semanson, who represents District 5 on the commission, was first elected in 2016 and was unanimously selected as chairwoman on Jan. 3.

In recently filed documents answering the motion to dismiss, Joshua A. Scoggins, attorney for the complainants, countered Buckley’s arguments and reiterated claims made in the original lawsuit, stating that Semanson is not entitled to sovereign immunity for claims brought against her in her individual capacity and is not entitled to statutory or official immunity in this case.

“Public officials, sued in their individual capacities, are not entitled to either statutory or official immunity when they have acted outside the scope of their authority,” Scoggins wrote in the response.

Scoggins also said that while Semanson did not have the authority to directly issue a stop work order, she has allegedly “exceeded and abused her authority” in the matter.

“Despite not having the authority to issue a stop work order by herself, defendant has continuously attempted to threaten, intimidate and coerce others to do so,” Scoggins stated. “While defendant has not caused a stop work order to be issued yet, it is not for a lack of trying.”

The response also states that Fields Farm of Forsyth LLC, and Reid and Reid Construction LLC, are not required to exhaust administrative remedies to bring their lawsuit.

All of the Forsyth County Superior Court judges have voluntarily recused themselves from this case, according to court records. Instead, it will be presided over by Senior Superior Court Judge Martha C. Christian, who previously served as Chief Judge in Georgia’s Macon Circuit.

Background

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, 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