What you can’t get by regulation, get by litigation. That’s the developer’s mantra, and in this case from small town Georgia, a disgruntled landowner is going to court rather than going to the bank. According to the Corvallis News-Gazette, The Newton County, Georgia Board of Commissioners was sued after its decision to deny a request for rezoning of the property. The lawsuit claims that commissioners violated the property owner’s right to a fair profit from the sale of his property when they rejected his Wal-Mart rezoning request. Rockdale, Georgia resident William Corey filed the lawsuit on May 14. The suit alleges the Board of Commissioners violated Article I, Section I, Paragraph I of the Constitution of the State of Georgia and Section I of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, both of which say that individuals cannot be “deprived of life, liberty or property without due process of law.” “Defendants have acted in bad faith in refusing to rezone property, have been stubbornly litigious, and have caused the plaintiff unnecessary trouble and expense,” the suit states. Corey’s property on Route 142 consists of three tracts, one of which is zoned Highway Commercial (C-H) and two of which are zoned Light Industrial (M-1). Corey and Wal-Mart wanted county officials to rezone the two M-1 tracts to C-H so that they could develop a Supercenter. The Commissioners denied the request in April, citing traffic and environmental concerns. The suit alleges that the M-1 zoning classification of the two tracts is “unreasonable in that it substantially devalues the property and prohibits its development by restricting its use unreasonably and without public benefit.” The suit also says that the County Commissioners “failed and refused to work with the plaintiff in an effort to establish conditions of zoning which would permit the economic development of the property.” Corey is asking that the county’s zoning ordinance, as it applies to his two tracts, be declared unconstitutional and that the Commissioners be ordered to reconsider the rezoning application and work with him to allow a “reasonable use” of the property and that if it refuses to do so, the property be declared free and clear of all zoning restrictions and regulations. Wal-Mart says it is not involved in the suit, according to spokesperson Daphne Moore. This is Corey’s second lawsuit against the County. In the late 1990s Corey also filed a suit against Rockdale County after being denied a permit to build a truck stop at Sigman Road and I-20. Corey lost the lawsuit.
It is very common for developers to threaten a lawsuit against local officials who deny them a big box store, but it is not likely that many of them will win their case. Courts across the country are reluctant to substitute their judgement for that of local officials, unless it can be shown that local boards were arbitrary and capricious in their rulings. In this case, no landowner has a right to rezoning. His property was clearly not zoned correctly for a large commercial project, since several parcels were industrially zoned. Just because a landowner can maximize profits by rezoning it, does not entitle the owner to that rezoning. Land use decisions do not rest on how to squeeze the most money out of land, but what is the highest and best use of the property, to protect the health, safety and welfare of local residents. Perhaps Wal-Mart distanced itself from this lawsuit because of its unlikely result. In the meantime, another community has said no to a Wal-Mart superstore.