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Rezoning lawsuit continues

CONYERS - The lawsuit brought by Weatherstone homeowners against Rockdale County concerning a rezoning of nearby property for a higher commercial use continues through the local courts with no trial date set.According to court officials Thursday, the lawsuit filed in January is still in discovery, a process in which both the defendants and plaintiff exchange information backing up their arguments. Depositions, or witness testimony recorded for later use, are being scheduled.After that, motions will be heard by Rockdale County Superior Court Judge Sidney Nation to either settle the case or move forward with a trial.Weatherstone residents filed the lawsuit to protest the Board of Commissioners vote on Dec. 23 to approve a rezoning request from C-1 to C-2 zoning of a 1.1-acre lot at 1180 Ga. Highway 138 S., near the entrance to the subdivision.Alvin H. and C. Roland Vaughn are the property owners and are named as defendants in the lawsuit along with Rockdale County. The Vaughns' rezoning request filed with the county noted the possibility of a vehicle dealership as a use for the land, if the zoning was changed. However, since that time The Market, an organic produce store, has opened at the property.J.V. Ogle, Gayle Cross and Heather and Robert Davis, residents who live near the Vaughn property, were also listed in the lawsuit as plaintiffs. Ogle, who lives behind the Vaughn property, removed himself as a party after the initial court filing.Decatur attorney Linda Dunlavy is representing the Weatherstone homeowners. She said the county commissioners failed to follow the county's Unified Development Ordinance by not giving 90 days notice before acting on the matter.According to the lawsuit and the rezoning application, the application was filed Oct. 1. The Conyers Rockdale Planning Commission was scheduled to hear the application Dec. 11 and the Board of Commissioners was to hold a public hearing a week later on Dec. 18. That would place the first chance for the BOC to vote on the matter on Dec. 30 - a week after the actual vote was taken.The original court documents sought to identify the county's action as "spot zoning." Since then, Dunlavy said her clients have clarified their complaint and now seek to have the zoning request go through the public hearing process once more with the current Board of Commissioners.Two of the three county commissioners who voted on the rezoning request were defeated in the November elections. The Board of Commissioners is now comprised of newly elected Chairman Richard Oden, newly elected Commissioner Oz Nesbitt, and Commissioner JaNice Van Ness, who is up for re-election in 2010."The issue has been narrowed to: one, did they hear the case prematurely; and two, if they did hear the case prematurely does that result in setting aside the zoning decision," Dunlavy said. "Our argument, of course, is that it does and it needs to be heard by the new Board of Commissioners."The county is represented by Thomas Bowman, John Nix and Robert Zoeckler. Nix and his associates had served as the county attorneys before Oden replaced them in February with Conyers attorney M. Qader A. Baig.Nix and his associates were retained because they made the initial response to the lawsuit before Baig was named county attorney.Rockdale County spokeswoman Julie Mills declined comment based on county policy not to discuss pending or ongoing litigation.At the time of the Dec. 23 vote, then-county commission Chairman Roy Middlebrooks said the commissioners sought to give the incoming Board of Commissioners a clean slate of business. Also, the zoning request would have been in the unusual situation of having one set of commissioners hold public hearings on the matter and a different set of commissioners vote on the request.The vote to approve the rezoning was 2-1, with Commissioner JaNice Van Ness voting no. The BOC approval of the rezoning came despite recommendations from the Planning Commission and county planning and zoning staff to deny it.Then-Commissioner Jason Hill and Middlebrooks defended their vote saying the property had been rendered useless through no fault of the property owners because of changes in the county's zoning ordinances and a reconfiguration of the highway by the state.The triangle-shaped property faces Ga. 138 and has a county-maintained dirt road, the old Ga. 138, surrounding it on the other two sides.Jay Jones can be reached at jay.jones@rockdalecitizen.com