Land dispute puts eminent domain laws under fire: Atlanta (GA) Journal-Constitution, 12/22/05

By Eric Stirgus

A Stockbridge landowner and his lawyers argued last week that the city's plan to use eminent domain guidelines to take his property violate the purpose of the law.

John Horvath testified in a condemnation hearing last Friday that his seven acres are no slum. City officials have said there are slum areas in Stockbridge, and its redevelopment plan, which encompasses Horvath's property, will revitalize those areas. A city-hired appraiser admitted during the hearing that Horvath's property was in good condition.

"The Horvath property and the surrounding property is not a slum," said Robert Remar, one of Horvath's attorneys.

The city is willing to pay $650,000 for the property, but Horvath is fighting the acquisition. A special master assigned to the case rejected Horvath's plea that the case be tossed out. The three-hour hearing ended without resolution and is scheduled to continue today.

Several property owners have contested the city's plan to redevelop 22 acres near North Henry Boulevard into a new City Hall, surrounded by homes and shops. They argue eminent domain should not be used for private development.

Some state lawmakers have jumped into the fray, saying they will pass legislation changing Georgia's eminent domain laws. State Rep. Steve Davis (R-McDonough) said he will file a bill requesting a 120-day statewide moratorium on all efforts to use eminent domain laws until revised guidelines are created.

"It gives us the time to work this out while protecting the citizens of Stockbridge," he said.

Stockbridge City Attorney A.J. "Buddy" Welch Jr. contends that most residents support the city's plan.

"What the city is doing will be a positive for the city of Stockbridge for the next 50 years," Welch said after last week's hearing. "It's an excellent plan."

Horvath and his attorneys are not convinced.

Horvath, an orthodontist, said he bought the property in 1990 to expand his practice. His property is the largest tract of land that the city wants for its plan. Under one set of plans presented at the hearing, multistory residential and commercial structures will be built on Horvath's property.

At the hearing, Horvath's attorneys argued that the city has proceeded without a clear vision for what it wants to do with the area, citing several plans they've seen. They argued Horvath should have the opportunity to develop his property, not the city.

Welch countered the complaints are "smoke screens" to gain public sympathy.

Horvath is the last property owner who has not either settled on a price for his land or concluded a condemnation proceeding. Three other property owners have said they will appeal condemnation decisions.

Atlanta Journal-Constitution: www.ajc.com