Builders opt not to file fee appeal

COVINGTON - Newton County is at last victorious in a more than two-year battle with local and state homeowners associations over its impact fee ordinance.

With the 30-day deadline passed to appeal a December Supreme Court ruling in favor of the county, "the litigation is over," County Attorney Tommy Craig told the Newton County Board of Commissioners at its Jan. 15 meeting.

In December, Superior Court Judge Horace Johnson Jr. dismissed a lawsuit filed against the county by the Newton County Home Builders Association and the Home Builders Association of Georgia, saying the associations failed to meet the burden of proof.

At the time, the president of the Newton County Home Builders Association said an appeal was possible, but the home builders' attorney, Deron Hicks, said Tuesday the decision was ultimately made not to file.

"The continued investment of money and time in it, my client felt, was not warranted, in light of what has already been accomplished in this lawsuit. I think there's been this misconception that what happened at this trial is all the case is about and it wasn't. From our view point, we've been able to affect substantial changes in this ordinance ... It is time to go ahead and move forward. On balance, we feel like we accomplished a lot of what we wanted to accomplish on this."

Newton County enacted its impact fee ordinance in March 2005, with the expectation of collecting $50 million over 10 years to fund libraries, parks and recreation and transportation projects.

The associations filed suit against the county in December 2005, alleging the county's ordinance was illegal and unenforceable.

Since that time, commissioners have made several changes to the ordinance to address allegations in the lawsuit, including the exclusion of churches from paying the fees.

Georgia law does not exempt churches, but the county had not been requiring that churches pay the fees. In 2006, commissioners agreed to begin imposing the fees on churches.

"We filed the lawsuit for a number of different reasons. One had to do with the issue of allocation on roads, one with the refund procedure and one with certain exemptions the county had granted, which we believe were unfair," Hicks said. "Of those three issues, the county, after we filed the lawsuit, made changes to the refund process, addressed the exemption problem we raised and we ended up going to trial on the final issue of allocation. When everything was said and done, we had to sit down and weigh the cost of appeal on that third issue and the time involved."

The county has collected more than $6.5 million in impact fees since March 2005 but was waiting for the litigation to be resolved before spending the money.

Following Johnson's verdict in December, Executive Officer John Middleton told the Citizen that "the Board of Commissioners is ready to move forward with recreation and parks, library and transportation projects that were delayed by this lawsuit."

A branch library and a park, both in the Oak Hill area, along with several transportation projects, could be the first to benefit from the freed funds, Middleton said.

Crystal Tatum can be reached at crystal.tatum@newtoncitizen.com.