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Neighbors filed this lawsuit against Buford following heated warehouse annexation
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Hall County District 1 Commissioner Kathy Cooper speaks Tuesday, July 20, 2021, to the Buford Planning Commission in opposition of a proposed warehouse development on McEver Road, which is in her district. The planning commission approved the proposal which will go before the Buford City Commission next month. - photo by Scott Rogers

Neighboring property owners and homeowners associations filed a lawsuit against the city of Buford’s Board of Commissioners Monday, Aug. 30, to appeal a controversial vote last month to annex and rezone land for a warehouse facility on McEver Road.

The lawsuit claims the commissioners’ decision ignored the city’s own zoning criteria and future land use map.

“The City Commissioners actions were an abuse of its police and zoning powers, resulting in an unlawful taking of Petitioners’ property,” the lawsuit states. 

Plaintiffs include Lake Run, Glenwood Park and Four Seasons homeowner’s associations as well as four neighboring property owners. Lawyer Stanton Porter filed the 13-page lawsuit in Gwinnett County Superior Court.

Buford City Attorney Gregory Jay wrote in an email Friday, Sept. 3 that the city typically doesn’t comment on pending lawsuits.

“We feel confident that the rezoning will be upheld consistent with the two prior tribunals that reviewed this matter,” Jay wrote.

The Board of Commissioners unanimously approved a warehouse facility from Chicago-based firm CA Ventures that would include two buildings, totaling nearly 400,000 square feet on a 34-acre lot at 6533 McEver Road. The land on McEver Road is surrounded by residential neighborhoods, and bordered on two sides with commercial zonings.

The commission voted to approve annexation of the land from Hall County and rezone it from agricultural residential to light industrial use at a rowdy meeting on Aug. 2, which followed a bitter audience response to the Planning and Zoning Commission approval two weeks earlier. A successful appeal would overturn the Board of Commissioner’s decision. 

Ley Hathcock lives within a few hundred feet of the property in Lake Run subdivision, whose homeowners association is one of the plaintiffs in the suit. Most neighbors don’t oppose this land being developed, Hathcock said, but they oppose this kind of development that will bring more truck traffic and won’t fit with the character of surrounding residential areas. A residential subdivision on the same lot could bring in more traffic overall, but it would have less impact on the road, he said. 

“I don’t think there’s a soul in the world that would argue that a Hyundai going down the road is the same thing as a tractor trailer with respect to safety, with respect to noise, with respect to the wear and tear on the road, or anything else that I can imagine,” Hathcock said.

The lawsuit states the commission did not follow proper procedure in making its decision, harms nearby residents’ property values and that the commission was making the decision for the benefit of Buford’s school district rather than the city as a whole.

“The annexation and zoning amendment not only fails to follow and is not justifiable under the City of Buford’s comprehensive plan, it is a radically inconsistent use for the property,” the suit states.

Chairman Phillip Beard said during the August meeting, Buford had to consider its schools, and this development had the benefit of not adding more students while contributing to Buford’s school district tax digest.

“(Buford) is not a small town anymore, and it takes a lot to operate our schools and keep the quality that we have,” Beard told the Times after the August meeting finished. “To do that we have to continue to grow.”

Beard is also the Chairman of Buford’s Board of Education, because the city’s charter automatically designates the city commission chair to serve as chair of the school board.

The project is expected to cost around $55 million, which would give Buford Schools $277,200 in annual property taxes, according to a statement from Buford City Manager Bryan Kerlin. Hall County would receive about $212,322 annually. 

Teresa Cantrell, who is one of the plaintiffs in the suit and owns the adjacent women’s recovery center, said they want to stop industrial development from encroaching upon residential areas. 

“We feel like the decision was not properly considered,” Cantrell said. “They did not look at any of the factual evidence that they were supposed to use making a land use decision.”

Many residents opposing this development live in nearby Flowery Branch or unincorporated Hall County. Both the Hall County Planning Commission and Flowery Branch City Council denied this same project in 2020. But a statewide arbitration panel sided with Buford in June after Hall County tried to stop the annexation. Find a full timeline of events here.

Buford’s 2019 comprehensive land use plan states, “the City should pursue strategic annexations that expand the tax base, but do not place high burdens on City infrastructure and services.” 

CA Ventures plans to make improvements on McEver Road that will cost more than $1 million, said Steve Rowley, senior vice president and marketing officer at CA Ventures. The project is expected to add about 200 jobs.

Rowley has also argued that the development fits, because there is other industrial and commercial zoning along McEver Road

Coincidentally, had COVID-19 had not hit when it did, neighbors may have gotten the residential development they wanted. Flowery Branch received an application in February 2020 to annex and rezone part of the warehouse plot and surrounding land to build a 102-home subdivision, but the plan fell through in May 2020 because of economic uncertainty related to the pandemic. 

“This is a bigger issue than just us,” Cantrell said. “The issue is the momentum of industrial movement which in itself is good for the area, but if it begins pushing into established residential then it becomes not good.”