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Owners win course case
Judge rules against county
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Forsyth County News
Nearly three years in the making, a lawsuit over the future of Lanier Golf Course ended in less than two days.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger E. Bradley ruled this afternoon in favor of golf course owners Jack Manton and George Bagley Jr. in the case.

Settlement terms have not been determined. Bradley told attorneys for Forsyth County and the course owners that he would weigh the orders they submitted in making his decision on what relief to grant the plaintiffs.

"Good, bad or indifferent, I've got some bad news for both of you," Bradley said before announcing his ruling. "I perceive what happens out there is going to be more economically driven than what I do today."

Bradley ruled that the current zoning designation for the 172-acre tract off Buford Dam Road is not suitable and has "outlived its usefulness."

Manton and Bagley Jr. shed tears of relief after hearing the decision. County representatives showed no reaction.

The course owners filed suit against the county in 2007 after the county commission denied their request to rezone the site from agricultural to a master planned district.

At the time, commissioners cited traffic issues, as well as the proposed development's inability to comply with the county's comprehensive plan and unified development code, for their decision.

Forsyth County’s Superior Court judges recused themselves from the case shortly after the suit was filed.

Wellstone LLC had planned, contingent upon the rezoning, to buy the course site from the owners and build a 772-unit residential development with a 300-unit continuing care retirement community on the site.

The company joined the course owners in the suit, but dropped out early in 2009 after moving its headquarters to Texas.

Included in the golf course owners' suit against the county are arguments that the commission's denial of the rezoning was unconstitutional and was "in order for Forsyth County to purchase the property at less than its fair market value."

This year, commissioners have considered a proposal that the county buy the course for $12 million and then lease it for 99 years to a company that would maintain and operate it as a golf course.

The non-jury legal proceedings began Monday in a Forsyth County Probate courtroom.

Larry Hirsh, president and founder of Pennsylvania-based Golf Property Analysts, testified Tuesday that he was hired by the law firm representing the county in the suit to appraise the golf course.

He said he first visited the site April 26 and estimated the course is worth $3.7 million.

Hirsh said he rates golf courses for Golf Week Magazine and testified that "the golf course itself is really, really good."

Bill Huff, a real estate appraiser and expert witness for Manton and Bagley, told the court he thinks the property is worth about $487,166 as it is zoned. Furthermore, there is no economic use to the site as it is.

On Monday, Manton testified that he thinks the course is worth about $2 million, but needs about $3 million worth of repairs.

He said from 1988 until 2005, it was “a wonderful, wonderful investment.”

Manton said in February 2006, he and Bagley had a $35 million contract with Wellstone for the course. As a result, they announced the course would be made public in 2007 and, according to the contract, the course would close as soon as it was sold.

Manton said 2006 was the same year that the golf industry took a significant downturn.

During opening statements Monday, attorney Marion T. Pope Jr. said Manton and Bagley will "suffer a significant detriment under the present agricultural zoning.”

Pope, a retired state appellate judge, compared the county’s burden to prove the denial was appropriate to “climbing a ladder leading toward you or kissing a woman leaning away.”

Doug Dillard, an attorney who also represents the course owners, said the commission acted unconstitutionally and took their property rights without compensation.

He said his clients paid $4 million in 1988 for the course and it “might be worth $2 million at best today.”

Dillard said if the court doesn’t intervene, they stand to continue to lose money.

Attorney Phillip Friduss spoke on the county’s behalf.

He said things changed “the day that sewer appeared magically on Lanier Golf Course” and that, as a result, the value of the property “went from $4 million to some nut willing to pay $35 million.”

“Nobody was complaining about the constitutionality of the property before sewer came,” Friduss said.

Manton testified that a private sewer plant had provided services with limited capacity to the area since the 1970s or 1980s.

When the city of Cumming decided to provide sewer in 2005, he and Bagley donated the land for a lift station.

Manton said the agricultural zoning would allow for six residential lots of about 25 acres each on the property. His testimony, as well as that of other witnesses, showed the zoning would also allow for farming, chicken houses, hog farms or a church.

“We’ve been singled out to provide this community with a golf course,” Manton said.

He asserted that by denying his request to rezone the site, the commission has told him he is obligated to provide a public golf course to the community.

“If they want a golf course or a park, they have full power to condemn my property,” Manton said.