The Fayette Citizen-News Page
Wednesday, August 12, 1998
Land, water tower dispute headed to Supreme Court

Staff Writer

Dave Williams is taking his land dispute with Fayette County to the Georgia Supreme Court.

Superior Court Judge Johnnie Caldwell recently granted summary judgment in Williams' suit against the county, declaring that seven tenths of an acre Williams had thought he owned is actually county-owned property.

The county wants to use the land for a two million-gallon water tank and filed papers to condemn the parcel, which is next to an existing 500,000-gallon tank at Ga. Highway 92 and Lee's Mill road. The plan has sparked protest from neighbors who say the tank will detract from the rural flavor of the Hopeful community.

After being denied condemnation on a technicality, county officials discovered a deed from 1894 granting ownership of the land to the county.

Williams, saying his family has owned the property for decades, filed suit, and Caldwell's ruling says in effect that the facts in the case are clear and there's no need for a trial.

Geoffrey Slade, Williams' attorney, said he will ask the Supreme Court to overrule Caldwell, declaring that the local judge erred in failing to consider facts that call ownership of the property into question. If the appeal is successful, the case will be sent back to Fayette Superior Court for a trial.

"I'm confident the appeal will be successful," said Slade.

There is little disagreement on the facts of the case, he said. "We disagree on what the circumstantial evidence demonstrates," he added.

It will take several weeks to get transcripts of the recent hearing in Fayette Superior Court and prepare briefs for argument before the Supreme Court, he said.

Meanwhile, the county could go forward with its plans for the property if it chooses to. "I don't think that would be very wise, but we are powerless to prevent it," he said.

County manager Billy Beckett said water officials currently are "evaluating a couple of alternative sites" in case Williams' appeal is successful. "The county feels pretty strongly about its legal position," he said, adding, "We need to proceed with the tank... as rapidly as possible."

The tank is needed not only for future capacity as north Fayette grows, but also to solve current water pressure problems in the area, he said.

In the hearing before Caldwell, Slade argued that the question of ownership is cloudy enough that Williams deserves a jury trial to determine whether he or the county owns the land.

Dennis Davenport from the county attorney's office argued that the facts are clear, the county owns the property and there is no need for a trial. The county, he said, has "a deed that is plain and unambiguous on its face."

If there is an error in the deed, the law provides for it to be "reformed," Davenport admitted, but said in this case there is no error.

Williams' entire case hinges on whether the county owns the property, Davenport said, and the deed showing ownership is clear and unambiguous, he added.

"With those principals in place, it's clear that the county has ownership of the property," he said.

Slade argued that following clear title from 1894 to the present is not as simple as Davenport claimed.

The county received deed to the land in preparation for building a precinct courthouse, but a few years later when the courthouse was built, the county built it across Lee's Mill on property that the county did not own.

The county later bought the property on which it had built the courthouse, and then did not object when a quarter acre of the land now in dispute was conveyed to Hopeful Academy for a school building.

"If nothing else, that really requires an explanation," said Slade. "I would love to bring someone into court or take their affidavit," he said, but no one with direct knowledge of the transactions is currently available, he said.

"The issue is not who had title in 1894, but who has title to the property in 1998," Slade argued.

He also argued that the county abandoned the property and thus "relinquished its control."

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