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 Local News  -   Sunday, June 11, 2006

Disputed lake lots still tied up in court
Owners battling for access, utilities

The Times

Times file photo

Claudette Price looks at the property marker in front of her Lake Lanier home in this February 1999 photo. She lost a court case in 1995 to keep her home; now the new owners face problems gaining access to utilities.

For The Times

This aerial photo shows a peninsula on Lake Lanier off Lawson Drive in Forsyth County. The triangular lot to the left, shaded in yellow, is owned by Larry Pierce of Douglasville. It has no direct access to Lawson Drive, shaded in red, due to a surveyor's error. Pierce has filed suit seeking an easement for road access.

Tom Reed The Times

This is the site of the home under construction on the property formerly owned by Claudette Price.

Times file photo

This is a photo of the original house that Claudette Price was forced to give up.

The war on Lawson Drive in Forsyth County did not end with the infamous federal court case forewarning those who encroach on U.S. Army Corps of Engineers property.

A storm cloud of legal battles and bad blood still hovers over the Lake Lanier peninsula, though the court case that put Claudette Price's former property on the map is a decade old.

Now, another precedent-setting case is under way.

Price built her retirement home on the 1.5-acre tip of a peninsula on Lake Lanier. A surveyor hired by the corps found that the house was built 2.14 feet below the floodline.

No one can build a permanent structure below 1,085 feet elevation, the point to which the corps retains flooding right.

On Sept. 29, 1995, Judge William C. O'Kelley of the U.S. District Court's Gainesville Division ordered Price to remove her house from what was determined to be corps property.

Left with legal fees and a mortgage but no house, Price was bankrupt. Her property went into foreclosure and was sold on the courthouse steps for $31,000 to investors Knute Anderson and Allen Compton.

Nearly a decade later, a title attorney for Anderson and Compton discovered a 1956 plat used in an old court case that decided the location of the floodline on that property, which then was owned by Clyde Lawson. That plat showed a different line than the one used in Price's case, one that allowed more room to build.

The corps agreed to honor the 1956 plat as the legally binding site of the floodline at the end of Lawson Drive. Accordingly, the Forsyth County Planning and Development Department issued a building permit for the new owners.

"Based on that survey, they've got more of a building envelope," planning director Jeff Chance said.

The line surveyed in 1956 would have chopped Price's house in half. But she could have moved it to higher ground on the property, had anyone known about the survey from 1995.

The investors recently sold the property to three Atlanta-area doctors for $625,000. A 5,100-square-foot, 14-room vacation home is being built on the site.

"The property owner and the county have been informed by the corps where the 1085 flowage easement is, and they are following that," said Chris Lovelady, chief ranger for the corps on Lake Lanier.

Price, who now works and lives in Fort Walton Beach, Fla., said she doesn't blame brothers Robert, Rodney and Hector Dourron for buying the property and building a vacation home. She remembers the spectacular lake view from her former family property.

But Price's devastation and indignation at losing her home and retirement have not diminished over the years.

"There is definitely something wrong with our system that will ruin one person's hard work and dreams to be totally destroyed, and then pat the 'big boys' on the head and give them the go-ahead," Price said via e-mail.

"I have tried to find legal counsel but it seems lawyers shy away from my case, probably because of the time element or maybe because fighting the government is a losing battle, which I agree first hand!" she said.

Neighbors fight for rights

Robert Dourron said he was reluctant to buy the property, but not because of Price's case.

"There was all kinds of infighting going on there," Dourron said. "It's just the worst nightmare that ever happened."

The problem is a tiny triangular-shaped property (shaded in yellow in the aerial photo at right) next to Dourron and a lawsuit that began before he even owned the land.

Claudette Price built her house on the peninsula lot and half of the neighboring lot, which she also owned at the time. She divided the second lot, which was eventually sold to Larry Pierce of Douglasville for $10,000.

The lot is triangular, with the wide end facing the lake. It has no direct access to Lawson Drive (shaded in red in the photo) due to a surveyor's error.

For years, Pierce has sought a 10-foot easement from his neighbors to gain access to the road. He is trying to sell for $250,000, but no one will touch it without road access.

When no one would grant him an easement, Pierce then filed suit against Anderson's and Compton's firm, Hopeful LLC, and his neighbor, Ken Wise, who is Price's former son-in-law. His suit was based on state law that says a landlocked property owner has a right to an easement to gain access to his or her property.

But Pierce does have access, said David C. Joyner, the Buford attorney who represents Hopeful LLC and Wise in the suit. Pierce legally can reach his land by walking around the peninsula on the corps-owned shoreline.

"The law does not require my clients to give up an easement to make it more convenient," Joyner said, adding that it essentially would be a condemnation if the government forced his clients to grant the easement.

After a weeklong trial in October 2005, the jury found in favor of Hopeful LLC and Wise.

"It sounded like I was trying to get something for nothing, irrelevant of the law," Pierce said in explanation of his loss.

Pierce took his case to the Georgia Court of Appeals. A panel of three judges heard oral arguments last month in Jefferson. A ruling is expected any day, Joyner said.

This is a "case of first impression" for the court, Joyner said. The court has never decided what happens when a person buys property and then invokes the law to force an easement.

Of course, Joyner hopes the judges find in favor of his clients. If they don't, "there's going to be a lot of litigation and a lot of people going out and buying properties and suing their neighbors for easements," Joyner said.

Battle over utilities

While the easement issue is in court, there is another problem facing Dourron: how to get utilities to his property.

"I have had to go through hell to get to this point," Dourron said of getting a building permit.

Pierce got the heirs of Clyde Lawson, developer of Lawson Manor subdivision, to deed him Lawson Drive, a private road. Opposing attorneys have disputed whether it is possible for Pierce to own the road. The matter would have to be settled by a judge, but no suit has been filed.

Because he supposedly owns the right of way, Pierce has denied utility access to Dourron's property via Lawson Drive.

"In other words, they're not letting me have an easement, so I'm not letting the water go farther down," Pierce said.

Sawnee Electric Membership Corporation had an existing easement onto Dourron's property, so he was able to get power. But Forsyth County won't extend water to the property, and he may have to dig a well.

"The county's position has been that the issue has been disputed, and the county is not going to unilaterally encroach on the disputed property and install a water line," Forsyth County Attorney Ken Jarrard said.

Pierce said he is willing to work something out with Dourron about the water issue, but Dourron won't talk to him.

Pierce, an inventor and engineer, has spent $50,000 in legal fees so far. He said he feels like David fighting Goliath, the moneyed developers.

"It's a typical case of who's got the money to keep something going," Pierce said.

Contact: nyoung@gainesvilletimes.com; (770) 718-3428

Originally published Sunday, June 11, 2006

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