COVINGTON - Friends of the Emmett and Rhonda Jean Denby family, whose home is being condemned by Newton County to build Bear Creek Reservoir, are holding a candlelight vigil Tuesday night in protest. The vigil will take place from 6 to 7:30 p.m. in front of the Newton County Historic Courthouse, the same night the Board of Commissioners meets.
The Denbys and their two children live at 3124 Henderson Mill Road on a tract that will be under water when the reservoir is completed. Commissioners approved a resolution to condemn the property in December.
Ken McMichael, a member of the Jasper County Water and Sewerage Authority who is opposed to the Bear Creek project, said he organized the vigil to "put some pressure on commissioners to reconsider their actions."
Invitations have been sent to churches throughout the community.
"Mr. Denby wants to live in his home until it is needed for construction of the reservoir," McMichael said. "How can you condemn a willing seller?"
Denby could not be reached for comment for this story. However, in a letter he and his wife recently sent to the county, Denby claims the condemnation is retaliation for his opposing former BOC Chairman Aaron Varner in the 2004 and 2008 elections.
"This condemnation is clearly an abuse of eminent domain and a violation of our rights. ... The county made no effort to negotiate with us prior to condemnation and cannot justify any urgent need to condemn our home at this time," the letter states.
Denby said his family wants to stay in their home until construction on the reservoir begins.
"Then we can move out of our home knowing that the proposed reservoir is going to be built and that our rights have been preserved," the letter states.
According to officials, the reservoir will not be needed to meet water demands until about 2018. A construction date has not been given.
Due to allegations made by Denby against County Attorney Tommy Craig, the county has hired an outside law firm - Schreeder, Wheeler and Flint out of Atlanta - to handle the condemnation.
Attorney Scott Peters said the Denbys' property is the last substantial piece of property needed for the project.
Peters said he contacted Denby's attorney, Ken Levy, in May to advise that the county would attempt to condemn the property and would be open to a negotiation settlement. At that time, Levy said he was not authorized to enter negotiations.
In December, the county made a formal offer to Denby for $405,000 - the full amount of the appraisal performed by the county on the property, which is slightly more than 4 acres, according to Peters.
Denby's counteroffer was between $1.3 million and $1.8 million.
The county then filed a condemnation action and served a copy to Levy, who indicated he was no longer representing Denby.
Several attempts by the Newton County Sheriff's Office to serve Denby at his home have been unsuccessful, Peters said.
Denby's latest offer was $975,000, "not within what we believe to be close to fair market value," Peters said.
A judge signed the condemnation order on Jan. 26, which by law gives 60 days for the owner to be off the property.
However, Peters said the county is willing to allow the Denbys to stay longer.
"Given that his children are school age and other personal situations, an agreement could be reached entitling them to remain at the property for a reasonable period of time, and we certainly have no desire or intent to go out there and immediately remove him from his home," Peters said.
Denby's supporters have claimed the county is fast-tracking the condemnation unnecessarily, using a process that is commonly employed by the Department of Transportation when highway projects are delayed due to unyielding property owners.
Peters said the county is using what is called a declaration of taking method, which is a faster condemnation process, but is commonly used by the DOT and for water and sewer projects.
"Mr. Denby has his full right to defend both the amount of money he is entitled to and the right of the county to acquire the property," Peters said.