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Georgiacarry.Org, Inc. v. Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc.

Court of Appeals of Georgia, Fourth Division

March 14, 2018


          DILLARD, C. J., ELLINGTON, P. J. and RICKMAN, J.

          Rickman, Judge.

         The question presented in this case is whether Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc., a private organization, is lawfully permitted under OCGA § 16-11-127 (c), to prohibit individuals from carrying guns onto its property, which it leases from the City of Atlanta. We answer this question in the affirmative. The plain and unambiguous language of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) grants persons in legal control of private property through a lease the right to exclude individuals carrying weapons, and well-established authority from the Supreme Court of Georgia designates the land leased by the Garden as private property. We, therefore, affirm the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the Garden on the petition for declaratory and injunctive relief filed by Phillip Evans and GeorgiaCarry.Org, Inc.

         The pertinent facts are not in dispute. The Garden is a private, non-profit corporation that operates a botanical garden complex on property secured through a 50-year lease with the City of Atlanta. Evans holds a Georgia weapons carry license and is a member of GeorgiaCarry, a gun-rights organization. In October 2014, Evans twice visited the Garden, openly carrying a handgun in a holster on his waistband. Although no Garden employee objected to Evans's weapon on his first visit, he was stopped by a Garden employee during his second visit and informed that weapons were prohibited on the Garden premises, except by police officers. A security officer eventually detained Evans, and he was escorted from the Garden by an officer with the Atlanta Police Department.

         Evans and GeorgiaCarry subsequently filed a petition in the Fulton County Superior Court, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief on the basis that OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) authorized Evans-and similarly situated individuals-to carry a weapon at the Garden. The trial court dismissed the petition after concluding that the issues were not appropriate for the relief sought, a ruling that the Supreme Court reversed in part on appeal. See v. Atlanta Botanical Garden, Inc., 299 Ga. 26 (785 S.E.2d 874) (2016). On remand, the trial court held that the Garden's property was considered private under well-established Georgia precedent, allowing the Garden to exclude weapons and, consequently, granted summary judgment to the Garden. This appeal follows.

         OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) provides, in pertinent part, that:

A license holder . . . shall be authorized to carry a weapon . . . in every location in this state not [otherwise excluded by] this Code section; provided, however, that private property owners or persons in legal control of private property through a lease, rental agreement, licensing agreement, contract, or any other agreement to control access to such private property shall have the right to exclude or eject a person who is in possession of a weapon or long gun on their private property . . . (Emphasis supplied.)

         It is axiomatic that when examining this text, "we must presume that the General Assembly meant what it said and said what it meant." (Citation and punctuation omitted.) Deal v. Coleman, 294 Ga. 170, 172 (1) (a) (751 S.E.2d 337) (2013); see also Williams v. State, 299 Ga. 632, 633 (791 S.E.2d 55) (2016). "To that end, we must afford the statutory text its plain and ordinary meaning, we must view the statutory text in the context in which it appears, and we must read the statutory text in its most natural and reasonable way, as an ordinary speaker of the English language would." (Citations and punctuation omitted.) Deal, 294 Ga. at 172-173 (1) (a); see also OCGA § 1-3-1 (a), (b); Williams, 299 Ga. at 633.

         Here, the unambiguous text of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) leaves no doubt that the legislature afforded only private property owners, or those in control of private property through a lease or otherwise, the power to exclude licensed weapons holders from that private property. See id. It follows that "we attribute to the statute its plain meaning, and our search for statutory meaning is at an end." Deal, 294 Ga. at 173 (1) (a).

         The pertinent question in this case thus becomes whether the land leased by the Garden constitutes public property or private property within the context of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c). The statute does not specifically define those terms, but Evans and GeorgiaCarry contend that although the Garden, as lessee, is a private organization and operates as a private entity, the property it leases is considered public for the purposes of OCGA § 16-11-127 (c) because the lessor of the property is the City of Atlanta.

         The appellate courts of this state have not yet examined the classification of property under OCGA § 16-11-127 (c). Nevertheless, our Supreme Court has previously held-specifically in the context of a leasehold interest-that "[p]rivate property becomes public property when it passes into public ownership; and public property becomes private property when it passes into private ownership." Delta Air Lines, Inc. v. Coleman, 219 Ga. 12, 16 (1) (131 S.E.2d 768) (1963). Delta Air Lines involved a tract of land that Delta leased from the City of Atlanta. Id. at 12-13. Delta argued that it was exempt from paying ad valorem tax on the land because the land was public property. Id. at 13. The Court disagreed, holding that, "[w]hen any estate in public property is disposed of, it loses its identity of being public property and is subject to taxes while in private ownership just as any other privately owned property." Id. at 16 (1). Thus, when a public authority conveys a leasehold interest to a private lessee, the leasehold estate "is severed from the fee" and classified as private property. See id.

         Likewise, in Douglas County v. Anneewakee, Inc., 179 Ga.App. 270 (346 S.E.2d 368) (1986), a tax-exempt organization leased property from a taxable, for-profit corporation, and the issue was whether the county could tax the leasehold interest. Id. at 271. Relying on the holding in Delta Air Lines, this Court affirmed the trial court's holding that "the leasehold held by the [tax-exempt organization], when severed from the private-and taxable-fee owned by [the for-profit corporation], took on the tax exempt status of the holder of the leasehold . . ." Id. at 274 (3).

         And most recently, in Columbus Bd. of Tax Assessors v. Med. Ctr. Hosp. Auth., 312 Ga. 358, 806 S.E.2d 525 (2017), the Supreme Court again reiterated that, under Georgia law, we look to the lessee, not the lessor, to determine the status of leased property. Id. at 362-363 (2). In that case, the hospital authority sought a declaration that its leasehold interest in a building located on real property owned by a private entity constituted public property and was thus tax exempt. Id. at 358. The Supreme Court held that the hospital authority could claim a tax exemption if it could demonstrate that its property interest was held for a public purpose in furtherance of its interest as a hospital authority. Id. at 362 (2).

         Pursuant to the authority of Delta Air Lines, Inc., Anneewakee, Inc., and Columbus Bd. of Tax Assessors, the leasehold interest held by the Garden, when severed from the fee owned by ...

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