Zoning bill dies in state legislature
Judges to be trained on precedent

COVINGTON - A bill by State Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, to put into statute zoning law precedent set by the Georgia Supreme Court died in subcommittee during this year's session.

But Holt said his efforts weren't in vain: The issue will likely be part of the 2009 curriculum at the Institute of Continuing Judicial Education of Georgia at the University of Georgia.

Holt was attempting to mandate a precedent for reviewing challenges to zoning classifications, which he said lower courts do not always apply.

In a 1975 case, Barrett v. Hamby, 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.

Holt's bill would have also established as statutory law the presumption that county zoning decisions are valid and are given judicial deference.

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.

But there was an outcry from landowners over the proposal, and it was tabled in a Judiciary Committee subcommittee and never taken up again.

So Holt approached Richard D. Reaves, the executive director of the Institute for Continuing Judicial Education, where elected officials, court support personnel and volunteer agents of the state's judicial branch get ongoing training.

Reaves has recommended to the Educational Planning Committee that the issue be placed on the 2009 curriculum.

"While this adjudicatory task, compared to family law and criminal law matters, is far from frequently encountered by most Superior Court judges, it usually reflects an arena of judicial practice that possess high local interest when such a case does come to the court," Reaves said in a letter to the chair of the committee.

Holt said this will ensure that judges are aware of zoning law precedent, which was his intent all along.

"I was pursuing the route of putting it into statute, but, of course, if it's included in the next round of education, it means Superior Court judges will be brought up to speed on the precedent. There's more than one way to skin a cat," he said.

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