CONYERS -- The attorney for the owner of Villa Serena in north Rockdale County says the county's lawsuit seeking to shut down leasing of the facility is an "ill-founded governmental attack" on the owner's reasonable and lawful use of her property.
Rockdale County filed its lawsuit in December 2010 against Villa Serena LLC and Nancy H. Smith and Denton C. Smith of Monroe. The county claims that the large home on East Hightower Trail in north Rockdale County is operated as a commercial event site without the proper licensing and permits, that it violates zoning in the Watershed -- Non-Reservoir Area district, and that its operation endangers the quality of drinking water in nearby Big Haynes Creek Reservoir. The county notes in its complaint that the septic system on the property, which was built for a single-family home, is not adequate to accommodate large numbers of people attending events.
According to the Smiths' attorney, Andrew (Andy) J. Welch III, Mrs. Smith bought Villa Serena from a bank more than 10 years ago when the house was in disrepair. Welch stated in a press release sent to the Citizen Monday that Mrs. Smith maintains Villa Serena as a personal residence and leases the home and grounds for weddings. She also donates use of her property for local charitable events, recently for Project ReNeWal, Welch wrote.
Welch maintains that the county's evidence of zoning violations is largely based on a visit to Villa Serena by two female undercover investigators with the Rockdale County Sheriff's Office in November 2010. The officers posed as potential clients who were interested in renting the facility for a wedding. Welch stated that the two investigators were armed with a pocket-book camera to secretly record the visit; however, the tape has not been filed with the court.
"I think that's because the video does not support the county's claims," Welch stated of why the video has not been filed in the case. "It merely shows a tour of Mrs. Smith's home and back yard. The video actually supports my clients' position that the property is maintained as a home and leased from time to time for weddings and receptions."
The county also claims that occupational taxes should be paid on the operation of Villa Serena. According to Welch, the Smiths maintain that the county's occupational tax ordinance fails to include a state law exemption for leasing property. According to Welch, the county's ordinance is "overreaching, imposing an illegal tax on people in violation of the state statutes and the Georgia Constitution."
In response to the county's claim that Villa Serena's use as a wedding facility poses a danger of contamination to the county's Big Haynes Creek Reservoir, Welch said that a certified soil scientist had inspected the property and found that the two septic systems did not endanger or adversely impact the water quality of the reservoir. Welch added that the county has not conducted an inspection of the septic system in more than 20 years.
Robert Kendall, a Georgia Department of Public Health board-certified soil classifier and certified professional soil scientist by the Soil Science Society of America, stated in a 2011 affidavit that he had evaluated the facilities at Villa Serena and determined that there is "no evidence that the septic system is inadequate, failing, malfunctioning or in a state of bad repair."
In addition, Kendall stated that he did not think that the two septic systems pose any "actual or threatened harm to the members of the general public or any particular individual person. Furthermore, I do not think the two septic systems endanger or actually adversely impact the water quality of Big Haynes Creek Reservoir.
Both parties in the case have asked for legal and attorneys fees.
The county first sought to stop the leasing of Villa Serena as an event facility in the summer of 2009 when letters were written to the Smiths stating that they were in violation of the Watershed Protection zoning and asking that they cease operations. The county ultimately filed its lawsuit on Dec. 2, 2010, which was followed by numerous filings on both sides.
Rockdale filed a motion for summary judgement and dismissal of the Smiths' counterclaims on July 14, 2011, and a hearing was held on Nov. 10, 2011. There has not yet been a ruling on that motion.