A Superior Court judge Wednesday denied a request from the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors to allow the group to use one of its buildings as a hunting lodge.
Ralph Goldberg, the attorney representing the Nuwaubians, argued that the building was grandfathered in under current Putnam County zoning laws. But Frank Ford, representing the county, countered that the building was not legal when it was built and therefore cannot be grandfathered in.
"That building did not legally exist in June 1997 when the zoning ordinance was enacted," Ford said. "They can strip it down to what was permitted - a metal storage building. ... That's what they asked to build, that's what they were supposed to build, and the problem here has always been that's not what was built."
In denying the Nuwaubians' petition Wednesday, Ocmulgee Judicial Circuit Superior Court Judge Hugh V. Wingfield III said the Nuwaubians could use the structure for any use permitted under the county's zoning laws on the agriculturally zoned property, but first, the group has to strip the building down to the metal structure allowed by the permit.
Following the hearing, representatives of the group submitted a building permit application to the county building and zoning office seeking to demolish at least a portion of the building. Also, the group submitted a rezoning application seeking to change the zoning of its entire 476-acre property to agricultural. Presently the bulk of the property is zoned for agricultural purposes, but a portion is zoned residential.
The building, known as the Rameses Social Club, was built early in 1997 and has been a center of controversy between the Nuwaubians and county officials since.
When construction began on the building, there was no building permit and a member of the fraternal organization was cited for not getting one.
The Nuwaubians obtained a building permit from the county for a 100-by-50-foot metal storage building with minimal lighting and no plumbing. When construction was completed, the building included plumbing. A stucco faade, a kitchen and other small rooms have been added to the building, all without permits. Wingfield's ruling means the additions and plumbing will have to be removed for the group to begin using the building again. The building has been padlocked for more than a year under court order.
In 1998, Putnam County Sheriff Howard Sills filed a civil action against the Nuwaubians, seeking to have the building padlocked. He said the group was operating a nightclub out of the building in violation of state and county laws. The judge presiding over that case issued a permanent injunction barring the use of the building until it was returned to its original permitted specifications.
A year ago, the Nuwaubians asked the county to issue a building permit for the building as a hunting lodge. The county building inspector denied that request, and his decision was upheld by the county zoning board and County Commission.
The commission's decision was appealed to Superior Court, leading to Wednesday's hearing.