The findings in the Project Jackson lawsuit, which was won by the City of North Augusta, were released in detail Wednesday.
A 16-page signed order from Second Circuit Court Judge J. Ernest Kinard to the defendant, the City of North Augusta, and plaintiff Steve Donohue, details the judge’s conclusions that “blight” did not have to be proven, among other findings.
Donohue had hoped to put a halt on the development of Project Jackson, a proposed 457-acre development, possibly consisting of a hotel, stores and a baseball stadium.
The planned development is to be located between The River Club and Hammond’s Ferry neighborhoods in North Augusta.
The City of North Augusta received a copy of the signed order Wednesday.
The complaint lodged by Donohue, a resident of The River Club, stated, among other things, that the amended ordinance the City adopted last November establishing a Tax Increment Financing District to finance a portion of Project Jackson does not comply with state law in that there’s no evidence of blight in the area, and there are no findings that property values would remain static or decline without intervention.
The judge wrote in the order that TIF law states that blight in an area only needs to be proven once every 10 years. The original TIF for the area was adopted in 2006, and was renewed in 2013. Since the TIF was renewed within 10 years, there was no need for the City to prove blight, the judge stated.
In addition, the judge also concluded that blight actually does exist in the area in which Project Jackson has been proposed, based on testimony and evidence presented during the trial, which was held July 18.
Donohue also challenged the City on its initial discussions of the Project Jackson plan, alleging the City broke the Freedom of Information Act law, also known as an FOIA, by not fully disclosing why the North Augusta City Council went into some executive sessions in which the project was discussed.
Donohue’s complaint alleged that North Augusta City Council “repeatedly met in private, executive sessions between January 2013 and September 2013 without properly announcing the specific purpose.”
The judge, based on testimony given by Mayor Lark Jones and City Administrator Todd Glover, disagreed.
He went on to write that there was no evidence that the City failed to follow procedure in adopting the TIF.
One specific instance was pointed out to the court, which was a meeting held on March 11, 2013. Donohue alleged that the City took action in executive session to postpone public hearings, including a planned meeting with the Aiken County School Board. The decision to reschedule was done so following an “unexpectedly negative initial reaction from County Council to a similar request.”
According to the testimonies from Glover and Jones, the decision to postpone the meeting with the School Board was made by Jones “pursuant to the authority given to him by City Council.” The purpose of that night’s executive session was to brief North Augusta City Council on the status of intergovernmental agreements and the reasons for the delay in a public hearing, Jones testified,
Kinard concluded that “Mr. Donohue sincerely believes that secret meetings took place, but I have no clear evidence to refute the finding I make as to a FOIA compliance.”
Kinard also wrote that Donohue’s argument could “prevent municipalities from making even the most simple and necessary changes in a partially completed TIF plan.”
Kinard’s order stated that the record before the court included the minutes of all City Council meetings during which Project Jackson was under consideration. That, in addition to Jones’ and Glover’s testimony, showed that Jones announced the purpose of each session at the meetings, and that it was properly voted on. The court found that the minutes and testimonies were “credible and persuasive.”
Kinard also ruled in favor of the City when it came to the subject of the stadium being a “nuisance.”
Based on another case finding, Kinard stated that one cannot fight nuisance of the basis of “anticipated acts.”
He also ruled that the River Club neighborhood already is exposed to “nuisance” – noise of boats on the river as well as lights and entertainment coming from the Riverwalk’s Jessye Norman Amphitheater, located across the river in Augusta.
In his order, Kinard also found testimony given by City officials, which included a “multitude of ways in which the City might operate a baseball stadium that would mitigate any negative impacts” to be enough. He said Donohue’s evidence “could not support a claim for nuisance on these facts.”
Should Donohue choose to appeal, it must be filed within 30 days.