The Mayor of Forsyth, Georgia has sold his property for a Wal-Mart supercenter — and lost his public office in the process. On July 22, 2006, Sprawl-Busters heard from residents in Forsyth, Georgia, who were battling not only a Wal-Mart supercenter, but city officials with a strong conflict of interest. The Forsyth City Council voted 4-1 last year to approve the rezoning of nine parcels of land for a Wal-Mart Supercenter — despite strong objections from neighbors. Residents said at hearings that a superstore would dramatically change the character of their historic neighborhood, and cause property values to fall. Wal-Mart already has a smaller store in Forsyth right next to the proposed supercenter. Forsyth is a city which had a population of less than 4,000 people in the 2000 census — a drop of 10% since 1990. Yet Wal-Mart wants to build on 28 acres of land next to the Plantation Shopping Center — where Wal-Mart’s discount store is located. If the superstore opens, the discount store will be shut down, leaving the Plantation center without its main anchor store. The land Wal-Mart wants has residential zoning along a frontage strip, with commercial zoning behind it. Wal-Mart wants to see all the parcels entirely commercial. The city’s rezoning vote came just hours after the city itself ended an initial lawsuit brought against it by its own residents complaining about lack of due process. The city admitted that it had made a mistake in rezoning the land. The lawsuit charged that city officials had adopted a new zoning ordinance without proper public notice. A Towaliga Judicial Circuit Chief Superior Court Judge was scheduled to make a preliminary ruling on the lawsuit, when the city Attorney admitted that the new ordinances, adopted June 6, 2006 were void, and that the city needed to advertise for another meeting and vote again. “We accept the fact that we advertised notice of the meeting only 14 days before the meeting, and by law it must be advertised for a minimum of 15 days,” the city said. The Judge had suggested to the city council that they send the issue back to their Planning and Zoning board for a recommendation, but the council rushed the rezoning through again without seeking any planning recommendations. “I don’t know what their rush was,” the lawyer for the Forsyth couple who sued the city told The Telegraph newspaper. “But this isn’t the end. We’ll consider our options and continue the effort to stop the project.” The residents said the city still was not following proper zoning standards and that more legal action to stop the rezoning could happen. “This is an historic street of old homes on a beautiful tree lined street,” the neighbors told Sprawl-Busters. “The mayor owns the land which goes right down the middle of this parcel and lives in an old house on this land, which is part of the deal with Wal-Mart. He also owns a real estate company here. Wal-Mart has agreements with all of the owners already to purchase the land and some have even purchased other houses in anticipation of the deal. This is why the city council pushed this thing through against the advice of the judge and city attorney. Neighbors and others in the community have gotten enough money together to hire a lawyer but our city government seems so determined that they appear to be unstoppable and we are terrified.” Eight Forsyth property owners, most owning homes across the street from the proposed new Wal-Mart property filed the federal lawsuit, charging that they were denied their due process to oppose the rezoning. Today, the Macon Telegraph reported that a federal judge has dismissed their lawsuit and denied an injunction that would have halted construction. On December 21st, U.S. District Court Chief Judge Hugh Lawson granted a summary judgment to the city, the company representing Wal-Mart and owners of the nine parcels – to dismiss the claims by the plaintiffs. The judge also denied an injunction the plaintiffs had filed to prevent any site work or construction on the property. City officials say the court ruling now paves the way for construction of the superstore. “They are planning to begin work after the first of the year,” one official told The Telegraph. Mayor Jimmy Pace, who is ending his term in office, was one of the defendants in his role as mayor and also as the owner of two of the parcels that were rezoned. The Mayor said this week he thinks the site work will begin in mid January and is scheduled to take about three months, followed by five months of building construction. Mayor Pace got his Wal-Mart but lost his seat. He was defeated by Tye Howard in the November elections, and has only 4 more days in office. Pace will leave the house he now lives in, which sits on one of the rezoned parcels, and move into a new home he is having built. None of the homeowners has actually sold their home yet to Wal-Mart, because the sale was contingent on getting city approvals for the site. The project will have only a 100-foot buffer between the Wal-Mart and parking area and the road on which the neighbors live.
The federal court’s summary ruling means simply that the judge would not rule on any matters of state law in the case, so the door is still open for the possibility of a state lawsuit, raising the issue that the City Council did not adhere to state zoning laws when it rezoned the property. Macon attorney Jerry Lumley, who is representing the plaintiffs, said he has told the upset homeowners to shift their focus now to the state courts. “I think the city made a bad decision and an illegal decision,” Lumley said. The lawyer charges that the City Council’s action failed to adhere to Georgia laws about zoning procedure and conflicts of interest. He also said his clients have the right to file an injunction in Monroe County Superior Court to halt site work or construction, but that they would need to move quickly if they decide to do so. One neighbor has vowed to keep on fighting this project in the courts. Georgianne Bearden, one of those who filed suit to stop the project, says that having a new Wal-Mart as a neighbor will destroy the character of her neighborhood. “It is hard to fight people with deep pockets, especially when you can’t get your city government to help,” she told the newspaper. “But you hope to get your day in court and the opportunity to have your say before a judge. Even if we lose, it would show others that they are not protected from anything.” If the neighbors file a lawsuit against Wal-Mart and the neighbors who have sold out, none of the home sales will be finalized, and the former Mayor of Forsyth will have to move into his new home before he gets his check from Wal-Mart. By standing up for their rights, these Forsyth residents have cost Wal-Mart millions of dollars in lost sales at this location, and saved the city the hassle of dealing with the “old” Wal-Mart store, which will become dark. Readers are urged to call the new Mayor, Tye Howard, at (478) 994-5649, and ask him to pass a new zoning ordinance that limits the size of big box stores in Forsyth to 60,000 s.f. to protect the small community’s historic legacy.