COVINGTON - State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, is preparing to introduce a bill addressing how courts interpret zoning law when the Georgia General Assembly convenes next week for the 2008 legislative session.
Holt said he hopes to mandate a standard set by the Georgia Supreme Court, which he said lower courts do not always apply.
A 1975 case, Barrett v. Hamby, created the legal test for reviewing challenges to zoning classifications. The Supreme Court held that unless a "significant detriment" to the property owner could be proven, a zoning should not be changed by the court.
During the 2002 case Town of Tyrone v. Tyrone LLC, the Supreme Court defined "significant detriment" as a zoning that renders property worthless.
But Holt said that definition is not regularly applied by lower courts.
Instead, Superior Courts tend to look at the value of property as currently zoned compared to the value after rezoning, which is almost always higher, he said.
"The Georgia Supreme Court set a pretty high standard, but the lower court decision does not seem to be applying the standard strictly," Holt said. "The draft bill proposes to set forth the same Georgia Supreme Court standard, mandating by legislation a standard that courts should be already applying."
It was a case in Holt's own district, in Morgan County, that inspired the legislation.
A property owner there who requested a rezoning from agricultural to agricultural residential in order to decrease lot size from 5 acres to 2 acres was denied by the county.
The property owner filed suit in the local Superior Court, which held that the current zoning was unconstitutional because it caused a significant detriment to the property owner.
After the verdict, the two sides didn't question whether the correct test was used, but did dispute whether it was properly applied.
Holt said there have been similar situations in Newton County.
Holt's bill will also establish as a matter of statutory law the presumption that county zoning decisions are valid and are given judicial deference.
"When you have a situation where rezoning is forced through against a county or city's wishes and violates the land use plan, what about the property rights of the people who live in the vicinity of that rezoning? That's what I'm out to protect," he said.
In 2007, Holt saw passage of the Fair Annexation Act after two years and several drafts.
The act creates a system that subjects opposed annexations to binding arbitration and stemmed from the annexation of more than 1,100 acres of Newton County land into the city of Social Circle.
Holt predicted a long road for the new zoning legislation, as well.
"This legal flaw hurts homeowners and local governments who have invested time, money and effort in creating future land use plans, only to see holes shot in those plans by lawsuits," Holt said. "The effort may require more than one legislative session to deal with, just as the annexation issue did. But I am committed to seeing it through."
Crystal Tatum can be reached at email@example.com.