After a months-long legal battle, a judge has ruled in favor of a Woodstock annexation from last year that was contested by Cherokee County.
Superior Court Judge Tony Baker granted Woodstock a motion for summary judgment Thursday to dismiss the county’s case, which had alleged that the annexation had violated state law.
In May, the city council voted to annex three parcels near Arnold Mill Road, totaling 148 acres. The land includes a 132-acre tract planned for a conservation subdivision with 242 homes, and a 10-acre and a 5-acre property that connect it to city limits.
In the county’s suit filed against council members and the owners of the annexed properties, the county claimed the annexation was illegal on four counts, which the judge dismissed.
Woodstock City Manager Jeff Moon said the city was “pleased” with the outcome.
“Regarding the lawsuit, we were obviously pleased that the judge followed the plain language of the law and ruled in our favor,” he said in an email. “The county was asking him to make a more liberal interpretation of the law and legislate from the bench. Judge Baker’s opinion was well reasoned and we agree with it completely. Our hope is that the County Commission will read the ruling closely and will then decide not to waste anymore county taxpayer dollars on a costly appeal. This is the fourth time now that I am aware that the county has sued either Holly Springs or Woodstock in the past 12 years over a zoning or annexation related case – for which they have lost all four. Hopefully at some point they will decide to change course and want to sit down and actually talk through issues instead of going right to filing a lawsuit.”
Cherokee County Attorney Angela Davis did not have a response to the court order, except that county commissioners will discuss whether to appeal the decision at their next meeting.
In the suit, the county argued that Woodstock failed to provide sufficient notice of the annexation to the county because the submitted application, maps and site plan had contradictions. In response to the complaint, Judge Baker points out that neither parties dispute that Woodstock provided notice to the county in the legal time frame with a color-coded map showing the properties to be annexed and deeds of the landowners, as well as the application and site plan.
The county also argued the annexation failed to meet state contiguity requirements of “at least one-eighth of the aggregate external boundary or 50 feet of the area to be annexed, whichever is less,” citing a land survey that showed the smaller properties sharing only 47.15 feet. A later survey indicated that the boundary was exactly 50 feet. According to the court order, state law requires lands to be annexed to be treated as one unit, and so the western boundary between the Greater North Georgia Charities parcel and city limits of 378 feet meets contiguity requirements.
The suit alleged the city violated state law by annexing a portion, rather than all, of the Porter land. Because Porter owns two tracts in the area with the same tax number, the county views them as one parcel. Although one deed describes both tracts of land, Porter acquired the annexed parcel through a limited warranty deed in 2017, which has a separate legal description for that property, and “tract” is synonymous with “parcel” in state law, the order said.
The last claim was that because no “occupiable structure” can be built on the Greater North Georgia Charities tract, Woodstock could not legally annex it. The order cites the Georgia Code section that says annexed land must meet municipal size requirements for a building or occupiable structure, saying it does not require that such a structure can be built. As for the municipal requirements, Woodstock exempts projects involving annexation.
Updated 10:39 a.m. Tuesday:
Cherokee County Commission Chairman Harry Johnston said the county was "very disappointed" with the outcome.
"We are very disappointed in the ruling, not just for this case but for all future annexations across Georgia," he said. "We are currently considering whether to appeal it. If left to stand, it allows developers using “chain” annexations to circumvent the usual requirement for at least 50 feet of connectivity between an annexed property and the existing city limits. Chain annexations are already the most undesirable kind,. They use a string of small properties to annex a larger parcel far from the city. The purpose is to come under the city’s jurisdiction for approval of city-like development. The surrounding residents who are most impacted by the development have no voice in the process, since they’re not city residents and can’t vote in city elections. This ruling makes chain annexations even worse by allowing the chain to be infinitely narrow at some points."