A Georgia Court of Appeals decision will prevent Putnam County from suing members of the United Nuwaubian Nation of Moors for damages in the ongoing zoning and building permit lawsuit. The Oct. 25 decision also handed the fraternal organization one of its first victories in the group's three-year battle with county officials.
Ralph Goldberg, the attorney representing the more than 200 Nuwaubians named as defendants in the suit, said Friday the end to the lawsuit may be in sight. "We are now on the way to finishing this up," Goldberg said. "The part (of the appellate court's decision) that I care about, the court of appeals gutted the county's case - it dismissed all the damage actions." Frank Ford, the attorney representing the county, said the county will not appeal.
But Ford was not as confident that the issue has reached an end. Much of the dispute, and the resulting court proceedings, has centered around a structure permitted in 1997 as a storage building. The county contends the storage building was turned into a nightclub against county zoning laws and in violation of the initial building permit.
"This is not going to be over until the nightclub is resolved," Ford said. "That's not a legal analysis, that's just common sense. ... (The Nuwaubians) want that nightclub, and we contend it's simply not authorized under our ordinance. It's that simple." However, the court's decision does "narrow the issues," Ford said. "All of our cases against the Nuwaubians have been for injunctive relief, and they're all left preserved," Ford said.
Ford said the county will most likely seek to have the courts order the injunctions against the Nuwaubians made permanent, forcing them to obey the county's zoning ordinances or be in contempt of court orders if they do not. The county also has civil claims against the Nuwaubians under the Georgia Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act which were not considered by the Georgia Court of Appeals.
The county contends that the Nuwaubians, as a group, have shown a pattern of violating the zoning ordinance. Under Georgia RICO, the county may attempt to get money damages against some of the Nuwaubians.
"It may be we don't even pursue that," Ford said. "We need to figure out where to go now that this decision is in. We may end up abandoning all money damages claims, but I'm not prepared to say that right now."
Goldberg said he is optimistic the RICO case against his clients will be unsuccessful if pursued. The October decision does allow the county to recover attorney's fees in some cases.
If the Nuwaubians were to apply for a planned development under the county's zoning ordinance, they would be able to end most of the lawsuits and most likely build what they want on the group's 476-acre property west of Eatonton, Ford said.
"We've suggested that several times and been rebuffed when we have," he said. "That has always been their best remedy. Always."
In the past, members of the group have said the planned development zoning application would force them to "jump through hoops" they would rather avoid.