Certiorari to the Court of Appeals of Georgia -- 328 Ga.App. 381.
Samuel S. Olens, Attorney General, Isaac Byrd, Deputy Attorney General, John E. Hennelly, James D. Coots, Senior Assistant Attorneys General, Britt C. Grant, Assistant Attorney General, for Turner.
William W. Sapp, Nathaniel H. Hunt; Charles M. Cork III, for Georgia River Network.
Cook, Noell, Tolley & Bates, Edward D. Tolley, Devin H. Smith; Kevin S. Cauley, for Grady County Board of Commissioners.
King & Spalding, Patricia T. Barmeyer, Lewis B. Jones; Stack & Associates, Donald D. J. Stack, Kevin H. Jeselnik, amici curiae.
BENHAM, Justice. Thompson, C. J., Hines, P. J., Hunstein and Blackwell, JJ., and Chief Judge H. Gibbs Flanders concur. Melton, J., dissents. Nahmias, J., disqualified.
This appeal arises from our grant of petitions for certiorari filed by appellants Judson H. Turner, the Director of the Environmental Protection Division (EPD) of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources (DNR), and the Grady County Board of Commissioners (Grady County), requesting our review of the Court of Appeals's decision in Georgia River Network v. Turner, 328 Ga.App. 381 (762 S.E.2d 123) (2014). Appellees Georgia River Network and American Rivers are both non-profit organizations. The relevant facts show that in 2010, Grady County received federal approval to construct a 960-acre fishing lake. The project also entailed building a large dam and inundating 129 acres of wetlands and nine miles of streams to create the lake. To proceed with the project, Grady County was required to apply for a buffer variance through the EPD in order to disturb the stream waters that would be affected by the project. Appellees challenged the variance, arguing that Grady County's application was deficient because it failed to address buffers for the [297 Ga. 307] wetlands that would also be affected by the project. The Director granted the variance over appellees' objections. In a separate letter, the EPD advised appellees that wetlands did not require buffers because they generally lack wrested vegetation and were not subject to a variance request. Appellees sought review of the Director's decision from an administrative law judge (ALJ) in the Office of State Administrative Hearings. The ALJ overturned the variance, reasoning that OCGA § 12-7-6 (b) (15) (A) of the Erosion and Sedimentation Act requires a buffer for all state waters, including wetlands. The Director and Grady County filed appeals challenging the ALJ's decision in the superior courts of Fulton County and Grady County, respectively. On the substantive issue of the construction and interpretation of OCGA § 12-7-6 (b) (15) (A),
both trial courts determined that the Director's construction of the statute was correct and that the buffer requirement only applies to state waters that have wrested vegetation. Accordingly, the trial courts reversed the judgment of the ALJ. Appellees then appealed to the Court of Appeals.
OCGA § 12-7-6 (b) (15) (A) states as follows: " There is established a 25 foot buffer along the banks of all state waters, as measured horizontally from the point where vegetation has been wrested by normal stream flow or wave action. ..." Citing to principles of statutory construction, the Court of Appeals concluded that this buffer requirement applies to state waters whether or not their banks have wrested vegetation. The Court of Appeals explained that the language regarding how the buffer is to be measured did not create an additional exception to OCGA § 12-7-6 (b) (15) (A), but merely explained the location of the buffer. 328 Ga.App. at 391. In addition, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the statute was internally inconsistent and that its finding that the buffer applied to all state waters, without regard to the existence of wrested vegetation, would avoid any absurd or unintended result contrary to the legislature's purpose in enacting the legislation. Id. at 392. Based on this analysis, the Court of Appeals found the ALJ had not erred and reversed the decisions of the trial courts. We granted certiorari to determine whether the Court of Appeals erred in its construction of [297 Ga. 308] OCGA § 12-7-6 (b) (15) (A). Because we find that it did err, its judgment is reversed.
The cardinal rule of statutory construction requires this Court to look diligently for the intention of the General Assembly (OCGA § 1-3-1), and the golden rule of statutory construction requires us to follow the literal language of the statute unless it produces contradiction, absurdity, or such an inconvenience as to [e]nsure that the legislature meant something else. Absent clear evidence that a contrary meaning was intended by the legislature, we assign words in a statute their ordinary, logical, and common meanings.
(Citations and punctuation omitted.) Judicial Council of Georgia v. Brown & Gallo, LLC, 288 Ga. 294, 296-297 (702 S.E.2d 894) (2010). Here, the Court of Appeals erred because the literal language of the statute does not require a buffer for state waters alongside banks without wrested vegetation. The language at issue states in pertinent part: " There is established a 25 foot buffer along the banks of all state waters, as measured horizontally from the point where vegetation has been wrested. ..." Had the legislature placed a period after the word " waters" rather than a comma and had gone no further, then there would be no other conclusion but that buffers are established along the banks of all state waters, regardless of the existence of wrested vegetation. But that is not what the legislature did. By adding the phrase " as measured horizontally from the point where vegetation has been wrested," the General Assembly expressly defined how the buffer " is established." Since the legislature offered no other method for the buffer to be established but ...