Clayton County suing Lovejoy in annexation fight

The fight over a proposed gas station in Lovejoy took an intriguing turn Friday, when the Clayton County Board of Commissioners announced it had filed a lawsuit against the City of Lovejoy, in a fight over annexation of land where the business is expected to be located.

Lovejoy annexed a piece of property at the corner of Panhandle Road, and McDonough Road last March, and shortly, thereafter, changed its zoning status so that a gas station could be built at the site.

Commission Vice Chairman Wole Ralph said county officials are now arguing, through the lawsuit, that the land was not legally annexed by the city, because it is not contiguous to the rest of Lovejoy’s city limits. State law requires the annexed property to be contiguous to the existing city limits, he said.

Even though the lawsuit, filed Jan. 11, in Clayton County Superior Court, is about the city’s annexation of the property, it is still heavily defined by the fight over the gas station itself. The people seeking to build the gas station had asked the county twice before — when it was still under county zoning control — to allow the convenience store to be built, but were turned down both times, according to Ralph.

“The County Commission really does believe this [gas station] is not compatible for that area, and wants to use any legal means necessary to stop this atrocity from happening,” said Ralph, whose commission district includes Lovejoy.

Ralph is expected to address the lawsuit Saturday, during a “Saturday Morning Coffee” gathering with his constituents, at 10 a.m., at the Lovejoy Library Branch, located at 1721 McDonough Road, in Lovejoy.

The annexation, and subsequent rezoning, of the property has drawn the ire of residents from nearby subdivisions, who have been vocal in their opposition to the gas station. Approximately 100 angry residents packed a Lovejoy City Council meeting in June, to express their displeasure with the proposal, arguing at the time that it would bring down property values and increase crime in the area.

Ralph said those are reasons why the commission rejected rezoning requests from owners of the site of the planned gas station when the land was under county zoning control. The most recent rejection, he said, was approximately two years ago, and he added that the first rejection came approximately one-and-a-half, to three years before that.

“They then tried a different approach by being annexed [by the city], and then asking Lovejoy to rezone it, so they could build a gas station,” the commission vice chairman added. He said he found out about the city’s annexation of the property after the fact, when residents complained to him about what was being done.

The vice chairman said a review by county legal staff showed the city may not have followed state rules regarding the annexation of property by a municipality. “While counties have little power over the annexation of land by a municipality, state law does say the properties which would be annexed must be contiguous to the city, and this property does not meet that criteria,” Ralph said.

Lovejoy City Attorney L’Erin Barnes said the annexation of the property, and its subsequent rezoning should be treated as separate issues. “Maybe they [the county commission] need to be clear on what they are talking about,” she said.

The attorney also argued that the city council did nothing wrong in the way it annexed the land in question, arguing that the county never objected to the annexation back when it happened. She also said the city was not properly served notice of the lawsuit by Clayton County Sheriff’s deputies, but declined to specify how the city was served.

“The city disagrees with the allegations, and we’re prepared to show that we followed all statutory procedures for annexing that property, and we’ll let the court decide who is right,” Barnes said.