CONYERS -- A lawsuit filed by Rockdale County in an effort to stop the operation of a large-scale wedding and event facility in the county's watershed district has been winding its way through the court system for more than 18 months.
The lawsuit, filed in Rockdale Superior Court in December 2010 against Villa Serena LLC and its owners, Nancy H. Smith and Denton C. Smith of Monroe, claims that the facility 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.
The plaintiffs have denied the county's allegations and countered that Villa Serena, which is advertised as an Italianate mansion located on 100 wooded acres accommodating events hosting as many as 250 people, has been operated as a private park since the Smiths purchased the land in 1999. In addition, the Smiths claim that the building, grounds and facilities on the property have been owned and operated for social and recreational purposes.
The Smiths further note that the county's adoption of a Unified Development Code in 2006 no longer allowed property in a Watershed -- Non-Reservoir Area to be used as a private park. Further, they claim that the UDO allowed them to continue to use their property as a private park as a nonconforming use. However, the counterclaim adds, if the UDO is enforceable against the Smiths, they ask that the court find that the county's UDO constitutes inverse condemnation and award damages to the plaintiffs.
Both parties have asked for legal and attorneys fees.
The county first sought to stop the operation of Villa Serena as a commercial event facility in the summer of 2009 when several letters were written to the Smiths pointing out 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.
The most recent filing, a brief filed by the county's attorney, William J. Linkous III, on May 18 addresses the Smiths' additional claim that they are not operating a business at Villa Serena based on their assertion that there is no office at the facility, and they are, therefore, not required to pay the occupation tax or to obtain a business license.
The brief also references affidavits from two female Rockdale County Sheriff's Office investigators who toured the facility undercover in November 2010, with one of the investigators posing as a prospective bride. Linkous argues that the affidavits "show conclusively that defendants do in fact conduct the business of leasing the property on the Villa Serena premises."
According to the affidavits, the investigators were given a complete tour of the facility by a Villa Serena employee who told them stories about other weddings that had been held there. The employee detailed what would be included in a wedding package at Villa Serena, according to the affidavits, and provided information on catering and equipment. At the end of the tour the three "sat down at a table with (the employee) in a room that was akin to an office area," according to the investigator posing as the bride. "On the table were numerous books of photographs of weddings held at Villa Serena, and photographs of the building and grounds ... "
According to the affidavit, "During our meeting with (the employee), she conducted all of the business of renting or leasing the Villa Serena property to me for my purported wedding, other than signing the actual contract.
"At no time were we ever informed that there was another office for Villa Serena, nor were we ever told that we had to go to any other location in order to conduct the business of renting Villa Serena."