Forsyth County’s next move in the ongoing saga surrounding Lanier Golf Course remains uncertain.
Appalachian Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Roger E. Bradley sided Tuesday with course owners Jack Manton and George Bagley Jr., ruling that the site’s current zoning is unconstitutional.
Manton and Bagley filed suit against the county in 2007 after the commission denied their request to rezone the 172-acre tract east of Cumming from agricultural to a master planned district.
Settlement terms have not been determined. Attorneys for both sides have until July 20 to submit orders that Bradley said he would consider in making his decision on what relief to grant the plaintiffs.
Manton said he and Bagley are “ecstatic” with the judge’s decision.
He explained that once Bradley has considered the attorneys’ submissions, he will issue an order to the commission to rezone the Buford Dam Road property.
“The county commissioners will have 60 days to act on that order,” Manton said.
While their complaint asks for attorney fees and other compensation, Manton declined to share the specific amount of money sought.
He did say, however, that he hopes they can come to an agreement with the county on the property’s future.
“We have ideas, but we want to give them the courtesy of telling us what they think is the best resolution for the property,” Manton said. “Hopefully, we can come to a solution that’s in the best interest in the county.”
He said the price range for what he and Bagley would be willing to accept for the property starts with $120,000 to $135,000 an acre.
That’s the amount the county has paid for two other properties slated for green space over the past couple years.
Commissioners Jim Harrell and Jim Boff said the county’s next step is unclear.
Harrell said he will discuss with County Attorney Ken Jarrard whether the county should appeal the decision.
But both commissioners said the judge’s ruling vindicates their argument that the county, if it wanted to buy the site, would have to pay an amount that reflects what the property is worth at its highest and best use.
“Some folks have given Mr. Boff and I a hard time regarding pricing, but I think it’s clear from the judge’s decision that the property does have a higher market value and obviously, if we were to buy it, we would have to pay whatever that market value was worth,” Harrell said.
“Not what we would use it for, but what that person could sell it for in the open market.”
This year, commissioners have considered a proposal that the county buy the course for $12 million and then lease it for 99 years to a company that would maintain and operate it as a golf course.
Opponents have taken exception to the price tag of the proposal, citing recent tax filings that indicate the site may be worth far less as a golf course.
Appraisals of the property by experts who testified in the case earlier this week ranged from $3.7 million as a golf course to about $487,166 as the site is currently zoned.
Manton testified he thinks the course is worth about $2 million, but needs about $3 million worth of repairs.
Boff, who represents the district that includes the golf course, said it’s hard to give an opinion on the judge’s decision until he sees it in writing.
Boff said his understanding of what Bradley said in court is that agricultural zoning for the most part shouldn’t exist in Forsyth County.
“Part of what I think I heard him say is that more or less no matter where you are, once you get all modern services — roads, power, phone, water, sewer — you’re pretty much done with agricultural,” Boff said. “I don’t know that everybody would agree with that.”
He said he is also wondering what could happen to other golf courses in the county that may be agriculturally designated and why the county has made available a fast track for landowners who want to have their property zoned back to agricultural.
“He didn’t just say you’re making a mistake,” Boff said. “He said it’s unconstitutional for it to be agricultural.”
In their 2007 decision, county commissioners cited traffic issues, as well as the proposed development’s inability to comply with the county’s comprehensive plan and unified development code.
Forsyth County’s Superior Court judges recused themselves from the case shortly after the suit was filed.
Wellstone LLC had planned, contingent upon the rezoning, to buy the course site from the owners and build a 772-unit residential development with a 300-unit continuing care retirement community on the site.
Manton said Wellstone was willing to pay $35 million for the property.
The company joined the course owners in the suit, but dropped out early in 2009 after moving its headquarters to Texas.
Included in the golf course owners’ suit against the county are arguments that the commission’s denial of the rezoning was unconstitutional and was “in order for Forsyth County to purchase the property at less than its fair market value.”