A jury sided with a family against Effingham County in a trial last week over land condemnation and fair market value.
It all began when the county condemned the parcel of a property owner in Effingham County for the construction of Effingham Parkway. But when the county didn’t appropriately compensate the landowners, a jury awarded property owners more than nine times what the county initially offered…plus interest.
Property in Question
The more than three year saga revolves around a 12.917 acre plot of undeveloped land near Goshen Road in Rincon. It is owned by Thomas C. Strickland Jr. and Terri Strickland.
Effingham County, by way of the county commissioners and represented by Attorney George Lewis, sought the acreage for right-of-way usage for the construction of Effingham Parkway. Citing a ‘competent land appraiser,’ the county argued the proposed price of $80,500, or $6,232.09 per acre, for the nearly thirteen acres was ‘fair and just.’
On the property is a 90-foot natural gas easement which runs parallel to Effingham Parkway.
Due to the forthcoming construction of the property, the land was taken under the process of Eminent Domain for the greater public interest and against the wishes and without the consent of the property owner. Thus, the county filed paperwork to condemn the property and take it anyway. Under Georgia law, this is better known as the “Declaration of Taking Method.’ The Stricklands subsequently opposed the action on the basis of dissatisfaction with the amount of compensation and a lengthy court battle at the expense of taxpayers ensued.
Though the Stricklands filed an appeal within 30 days of the condemnation, the county was permitted to move along with the taking of the property in the interim.
June 10, 2020 – County files ‘Petition for Condemnation’ and places $80,500 in a court account for the property. The corresponding order was signed by a superior court judge. The Stricklands were served with the petition and order.
July 10, 2020 – The Stricklands filed a Notice of Appeal over the amount of compensation offered by the county and requested a jury trial.
June 21, 2023 – Three years after the initial filing, the case is set for a mid-August trial date. George Lewis, counsel for the county, pens a letter to Judge Gates Peed and informs him that the case is not yet ready to go to trial. He indicates they may be ready in September or October. Lewis said the appraiser was out of work on an extended absence due to illness and that he was in the process of updating the appraisal. The same appraiser is scheduled to go out of town during the scheduled trial date in August as well, rendering him unavailable to testify. Lewis also cites a lack of depositions taken as a reason for not being prepared for trial.
July 12, 2023 – Judge Peed continues the case and sets jury selection for October 17, 2023.
October 3, 2023 – George Lewis, attorney for the county, files a motion asking the judge to bar the attorneys for the Stricklands to ask any questions about where the funding for the project would come from while in front of jurors at the upcoming trial. Lewis argued the source of the funding for Effingham Parkway had nothing to do with the condemnation of the property.
Lewis also wanted barred any evidence that was not provided to the county ahead of the trial, as in no surprises, and wanted the Stricklands barred from discussing evidence on the location and design of the road.
Finally, Lewis argued the jury should not be able to hear that about the initial appraisal or that the county previously offered $80,500 and previous negotiations were had.
At some point, a second appraisal is completed by the county and values the impact of the taking, the subsequent effects, and the consequential impacts to the Stricklands at $321,850, likely why the county wanted the first appraisal and offer of $80,500 not presented to the jury.
A private firm retained by the Stricklands valued the same taking costs and impacts at $1,011,037.
October 2023 – The attorney for the Stricklands file a Motion to bar the county from introducing evidence about the tax assessed value of the property, the cost of the Effingham Parkway project, other ownership interests of the Stricklands, Net Worth of the Stricklands or their businesses, amounts paid to other property owners, and consequences of a jury verdict.
November 7-8, 2023 – Jurors hear evidence from both sides.
The jury ultimately ruled in favor of the Stricklands and awarded them $766,110 plus a daily interest amount of $146.92 for an additional $183,209. The grand total award due to the Stricklands from Effingham County totaled $949,319.24.
The jury’s judgment was formally signed as an Order by Judge Gates Peed on November 9, 2023.
The Stricklands were represented by Statesboro Attorney Andrew LaVoie.