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Burton v. Glynn County

Supreme Court of Georgia

July 13, 2015

BURTON et al.
v.
GLYNN COUNTY et al.; and vice versa. GLYNN COUNTY et al.
v.
BURTON et al.; and vice versa

Page 180

Zoning. Glynn Superior Court. Before Judge Kelley.

Roberts Tate, James L. Roberts IV, Jason M. Tate, Lacey L. Houghton, for Burton et al.

Aaron W. Mumford; Brown Readdick Bumgartner Carter Strickland & Watkins, Gregory T. Carter, Bradley J. Watkins, Emily R. Hancock, for Glynn County et al.

Mary H. Moses, amicus curiae.

HUNSTEIN, Justice. All the Justices concur.

OPINION

Page 181

Hunstein, Justice

At the heart of these consolidated appeals and cross-appeals is the question of whether property owners are violating a zoning ordinance by operating their property as an event venue. For the reasons set forth below, we conclude that the trial court properly found that the owners were violating the ordinance and that the court properly issued a declaratory judgment to that effect. Accordingly, we affirm the first of the two trial court orders before us in its entirety, and we affirm the second of the two orders except in one respect, as explained below.

Thomas and Lee Burton own an oceanfront property in the East Beach area of St. Simons Island. The property is situated within a single-family residential zoning district classified as " R-6" under the Glynn County Zoning Ordinance. After the completion of a large, lavish home on the property in 2008, the Burtons began offering the property, known as Villa de Suenos,[1] as a short-term vacation rental. Over the next few years, Villa de Suenos became increasingly popular as a venue for weddings and other large gatherings; from 2010 through May 2013, at least 79 events were held at the property, with many exceeding 100 guests.[2] In print and online media, Villa de Suenos was described as " perfect for weddings" and touted as " St. Simon's Island's premier wedding destination" ; its website featured scores of photographs of weddings held at the property. Guests who booked Villa de Suenos were furnished with a list of preferred caterers, photographers, florists, wedding planners, and other similar vendors.

In 2010, East Beach residents began raising complaints to the community homeowners' association and local law enforcement regarding noise, traffic, and parking issues arising from events held at Villa [297 Ga. 545] de Suenos. From that time, Glynn County police investigated more than 20 noise complaints related to the property, many resulting in the issuance of citations or warnings. In May 2012, Thomas Burton was arrested for maintaining a disorderly house.[3] After conducting an investigation, the Glynn County Community Development Director concluded that the Burtons were making use of Villa de Suenos as a commercial event venue, in violation of the county's zoning ordinance. The county thereupon issued the Burtons a cease and desist letter, contending that their operation of the property in this manner was not a permitted use in an R-6 district, and requesting that the Burtons immediately discontinue such use.

In response, the Burtons filed suit against Glynn County, along with each of its commissioners and its chief of police (hereinafter, collectively, " the County" ), seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and writs of mandamus and prohibition to stop the County's efforts to enforce its zoning ordinance so as to prohibit the use of their property as an event venue. In their complaint, the Burtons asserted, inter alia, that enforcing the zoning ordinance against them in this manner would violate their constitutional rights to due process and equal protection. The County brought a counterclaim, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief consistent with its interpretation of the zoning ordinance.

Following an evidentiary hearing,[4] the trial court issued an order on December 20, 2013, adopting the County's interpretation of its zoning ordinance and directing the Burtons to comply with the ordinance, so interpreted, in their future use of the property. The court also denied the Burtons' equal protection ...


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