A family with deep roots in the City of Hinesville and south Georgia’s Liberty County is headed to court this week in hopes of finally settling a legal battle that has pitted a property owner against a local government, involved environmental agencies from all levels of government, and run up the tab for legal fees and resource consumption for more than six years.
The O’Neal family has been in a legal dispute with the City of Hinesville since March 2013 when Mrs. Nancy Parker O’Neal discovered negative impacts of the runoff and dumping of water from a canal onto her 186-acre property. The point of contention, however, stems from the water drainage canal owned and operated by the City on the north end of the O’Neal family property which collects and channels storm water and trash to prevent flooding in Hines Estates. The water is allegedly dumped onto the O’Neal property on Highway 84.
What Is the Dispute?
The property owner, Nancy Parker O’Neal, contends that the City’s dumping of water onto her land has eroded the access road and her property and pollutes her land. The owner also contends that no easement was ever obtained by the City and any use by the City is trespassing on a portion of her property, which is designated as protected wetlands.
In March of 2013, city officials met with the property owner and her counsel on site to evaluate the initial claims, but then City Manager Billy Edwards reportedly stated the dumping would not cease due to a ‘prescriptive easement,’ – or an easement that is established when one party uses the property of another, without permission, for a minimum of seven years. A cease & desist letter was issued and ‘No Trespassing’ signs were erected, but the O’Neal family says the City then ‘destroyed fences, buried survey lines, and dug a deeper ditch resulting in more water being dumped on the O’Neal property.
In May 2013, the Army Corps of Engineers requested that the City provide the permits for the drainage system.
The City of Hinesville maintains that the City has had the easement dating back to 1992, a claim the O’Neal’s vehemently deny. In its initial response, the City claimed immunity from responsibility while simultaneously claiming the actions were a result of a third party, not the City. The City also stated in 2014 that the drainage easements existed ‘pursuant to properly filed and recorded documents.”
A civil claim was filed by the O’Neals against Hinesville, the mayor, and the city council in April 2014 alleging that the city 1) failed to follow federal laws on stormwater runoff, 2) failed to adhere to its own Drainage Design and Maintenance Standards, 3) failed to obtain permits to disturb wetlands, 4) failed to obtain permission from the property owner, and 5) has been negligent. A jury trial was requested and has been looming for the last five years years.
According to more recent court documents, the City now contends that beavers have been permitted to construct dams on the O’Neal property for decades, which the City alleges has created a nuisance due to the contributions to the expansion of the dams, the impact on the canal, the creation of wetlands, and the reversal of the waterflow. Hinesville claims the threat of flooding to Hines Estates is the fault of the property owner, not the City, and that the property owner is improperly discharging water into the City canal. In a counterclaim, the City claims ‘irreparable injury’ by the O’Neal’s, seeks injunctive relief, compensation for damages, and wants all attorney’s fees paid. Though the City claims the damage has been decades in the making, it did not take any action against O’Neal or prior family owners until the civil suit was filed against the City.
Most land disputes are settled with a land survey, which establishes boundaries of real property based on recorded documents that reference plats from more than 40 years ago in Liberty County, other historical evidence, and present standards of practice. Since 2013, the O’Neal family has paid for two surveys to be conducted while the City of Hinesville has not submitted any evidence of a survey being completed at its expense.
Both independent surveys found that the land where the City has a canal dumping water actually belongs to the O’Neal family, the second of which was conducted by Altamaha Land Survey in February 2019 for $1,100.
The Georgia Environmental Protection Division (EPD) in 2014 acknowledged that there were no abatement documents for the property in question.
Freedom of Information Act requests filed with the Army Corps of Engineers indicate a temporary permit for wetland disturbance for the developer in the mid-2000s, but no documentation of a permit or a request for a permit by the City of Hinesville or Liberty County.
As of August 2019, Hinesville still had not had a land survey completed, but has paid environmental experts to conduct studies, at least one of which – in 2014 – cited the presence of beavers as a disturbance.
Attempts to Resolve Only Draw Out Case
The matter is not headed to trial due to a lack of effort to resolve the matter outside of the courtroom. The case has already been to mediation twice and has survived requests for summary judgment by the City.
Derek White of The White Law Group in Pooler is representing the property owner, as is Benjamin O’Neal – the son of Nancy Parker O’Neal – of Hinesville. Oliver Maner LLP of Savannah is representing the City of Hinesville alongside Linnie Darden, the City Attorney for Hinesville.
In June 2016, the City of Hinesville petitioned the Georgia Court of Appeals for ‘Interlocutory Appeal,’ meaning the City wanted a higher court to go ahead and review a portion of the case. The Court of Appeals denied the City’s request.
In May 2019, a second mediation was ordered at the request of Judge Stewart but was again unsuccessful.
Mrs. O’Neal has, for years, made it clear through legal counsel that she is unwilling to grant an easement due to the impacts of the water dumping and instead wants the property restored along with a structural fix to the drainage issue that directs water away from her property. During negotiations, O’Neal went as far as to offer to pay an engineer to design a fix for the City, but the City reportedly denied such a compromise. In a letter dated August 28, 2019, defense attorneys told Judge Stewart that rerouting the canal would ‘cost the City an extraordinary amount of money.’
In court documents filed in August 2019, the City of Hinesville called the O’Neal’s lawsuit “bad faith and stubborn litigiousness” as grounds for its compensation by the property owner, holding firm that it owes nothing to the property owner.
At the end of August of this year, attorneys for the City of Hinesville requested that a trial date be set for May 2020 – a nine month extension – because counsel for the city had only just learned of a new witness and needed more time. But court documents show the defense learned of the expert witness in February 2019 and again in May 2019, but did not request to depose the witness until late August. Judge Stewart denied the defense’s request for a continuance and subsequently ordered the trial to go on as scheduled.
The case is set for trial before Superior Court Judge Jay Stewart at the Liberty County Courthouse on Wednesday, October 16.
This story will be part of continuing coverage by AllOnGeorgia as the case goes to trial. In Part 2, the financial aspects of the 6-year battle will be discussed.