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Second front of battle looms
Course neighbors pursue their case
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Forsyth County News
While both sides of the Lanier Golf Course issue consider the implications of a judge’s ruling last week, it appears another legal showdown on the issue is still simmering.

A Superior Court judge sided Tuesday with course owners Jack Manton and George Bagley Jr. and against Forsyth County, ruling that the property’s agricultural zoning is unconstitutional.

But a separate lawsuit seeking class-action status in an attempt to stop residential development of the 172-acre site on Buford Dam Road is again being reviewed.

Filed nearly three years ago, the suit has twice been denied class status.

Bob McFarland Sr., the attorney representing Michael Peck and about 120 other landowners adjacent to the course, said it could be December before the State Appellate Court issues a decision on their most recent appeal.

“I have always been of the opinion that if we win the class-action suit, the case with the county doesn’t matter because there would be an implied easement in the golf course,” McFarland said.

“Jack and George cannot sell it, they cannot do anything but continue with it as a golf course.”

If the case is again dismissed, McFarland said, he could apply for it to be reviewed by the Georgia Supreme Court.

If that doesn’t work, he said the landowners could file individual lawsuits and the cases could be combined.

The most recent denial occurred in 2009.

Cherokee County Superior Court Judge Frank Mills' order found that there were enough landowners in the case to establish status, but “no written, recorded document expressly restricting the Lanier Golf property to use as a golf course has been found.”

He also wrote that Peck, who serves as the class-action representative, failed to prove he is a member of the group and that he was promised a membership or the right to use the course.

“We’re optimistic that Judge Mills was right,” Manton said. “This case has been to the court of appeals already once. They sent it back for further clarification and that’s why it’s come back up again.”

Manton and Bagley filed suit against Forsyth in 2007 after the county commission denied their request to rezone the site from agricultural to a master planned district.

That suit was amended to include the allegation that the denial constituted an inverse condemnation of the property, for which Georgia law requires compensation.

Court documents show the plaintiffs estimated damages of about $100 million as a result of the denial.

Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger E. Bradley on Tuesday gave attorneys for both sides until July 20 to submit orders he said he would consider in making his decision on what relief to grant the plaintiffs.

The inverse condemnation claim, however, would appear to be a separate matter, one that Manton has said would be decided later by a jury.

Manton testified last week in court that he and Bagley had entered a $35 million contract with Wellstone LLC contingent upon the rezoning.

The company wanted to build a 772-unit residential development on the site that would include a 300-unit continuing care retirement community.

Wellstone initially joined the owners in the suit against the county, but dropped out in 2009 when it relocated to Texas.

After Bradley's ruling, Manton he said hopes they can come to an agreement with the county on the property’s future.

He said the price range for what he and Bagley would be willing to accept for the property starts at $120,000 to $135,000 an acre.

The first denial of class-action status occurred in September 2008.

But the following June, the State Appellate Court ruled Senior Superior Court Judge Albert Pickett’s decision had to be sent back because it was based on the merits of the request for class status.

Also, according to the Appellate Court, it failed to address whether each factor of Georgia’s class-action statute had been met.

The case had been assigned to Pickett -- and later to Mills -- after both local Superior Court judges recused themselves.

Complicating matters, several Forsyth officials have expressed interest in having the county purchase the course.

In fact, the county commission is considering a proposal to 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.