Gerry and Judy McManus believe Gwinnett County should not allow water running off new road construction to flood across their property, kill trees, wash away fish, and create sinkholes.
Gwinnett County believes otherwise.
In court filings, the county denies damaging the McManuses’ property. And besides, county lawyers argued, the county has the right to send as much water as it wants onto part of the McManuses’ land.
Five years after the McManuses say the damage began, the Georgia Supreme Court has sided with the couple in a lawsuit they filed against the county. The case has not yet gone to trial. But last week’s Supreme Court ruling affirmed a lower court’s interim order requiring the county to stop and repair the damage.
“The county has used taxpayer money to damage and then defend damaging the McManuses’ property for years,” said Matt Reeves, a lawyer representing the couple. “The county is not above the law in honoring private property rights.”
If the McManuses win at trial, the county could be on the hook for more than a million dollars in damages, court costs and repairs — costs the McManuses say could have been avoided if county officials had designed a better drainage system in the first place.
“If I had done damage to my neighbor’s property like the county has done to ours, they would have put my butt in jail,” Gerry McManus said.
The McManuses moved to Lawrenceville 17 years ago, when some of their neighbors still kept cattle. They meant to live out their lives in the gray-sided house, with its bay window and big porches. Gerry, now 63, is a retired AT&T supervisor. Judy, 59, works in commercial printing.
In 2009, Gwinnett County began building a new section of Sugarloaf Parkway, part of which runs by the McManuses’ 7.5-acre property.
Around that time, the damage began, the McManuses said.
Every rain would send water onto their land along all sides, they said in court filings, and it only got worse after the county built a detention pond that the McManuses said sends a firehose-like stream of water directly into their backyard.
The water turned their fish ponds the color of café au lait and washed away their bass and koi, the couple said in court filings. It killed trees and left behind islands of sand and mud. It carved sinkholes in their lawn and ankle-deep ruts in the driveway.
The McManuses talked to county officials, hired a lawyer, and eventually sued in 2010, seeking a judgment of more than $1 million. They went through mediation, but the McManuses said the county never offered to repair all of the damage, or stop its actions, or buy them out. However, court filings do show the county offered to remove some of the sand and mud.
County officials declined to talk to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution about the lawsuit.
The county said in court filings that a 20-foot-wide public drainage easement running through the McManuses’ backyard means it has the right to drain as much water as it wants into the easement.
But on many days, the runoff and damage ranged far beyond that area, court filings show.
Gwinnett County Superior Court Judge Timothy Hamil wrote in a June order that the county acted with “reckless disregard” for the McManuses’ private property rights. He ordered the county to stop the damage and make repairs. The county appealed to the state Supreme Court, which upheld Hamil’s order.
Although the case is still ongoing, Reeves, the McManuses’ lawyer, said he expects the county to start repairs in the coming weeks.
Gwinnett County said in earlier court filings that doing what the judge ordered would require a new, $3 million drainage system. Reeves said lower-cost solutions are possible. And court filings show Reeves warned the county at least four years ago that building the current system could end up wasting taxpayer dollars.
The fight has been expensive for the McManuses too, who said they’ve had to dip into their retirement funds to pay for it. All told, they said, they’ve spent about $100,000.
“This is our nest egg; this is where we live,” Gerry McManus said. “They’ve destroyed the value of the property. I can’t sell it and I can’t fix it up because water keeps damaging it.”