Developers sue Gwinnett over controversial Duluth-area zoning case

Gwinnett County Board of Commissions gather for a board meeting at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Tuesday June 7, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Credit: Natrice Miller / Natrice.Miller@ajc.com

Gwinnett County Board of Commissions gather for a board meeting at Gwinnett Justice and Administration Center on Tuesday June 7, 2022. (Natrice Miller / natrice.miller@ajc.com)

A real estate company formed by a state House candidate and the owner of Underground Atlanta recently sued Gwinnett County over a zoning denial for a proposed 181-unit apartment complex on Meadow Church Road near Duluth.

“It didn’t get approved because of some bad politics here,” said Om Duggal, the Democratic nominee for the redrawn 99th state House district and the face of Diplomat Infraprop Sugarloaf LLC.

Shaneel Lalani, the owner of Underground Atlanta, is a 50% partner in the company.

The site in question spans nearly 8 acres on the west side of Meadow Church Road and sits vacant except for a dead-end driveway. It is surrounded on three sides by luxury single-family subdivisions. Across Meadow Church Road is a booming commercial zone including the Primerica headquarters, Gas South District, townhomes, condominiums and apartments.

Duggal, with Lalani’s backing, bought the property in November 2020 for $3.5 million, records show. They had received zoning approval to build a three-story, 160-unit senior housing complex.

But their agreement with California-based Priya Living, which manages retirement centers with an Indian cultural theme, fell apart a year later. Lenders were not willing to fund senior housing as the coronavirus pandemic ravaged facilities where the elderly congregate, Duggal said.

Brand Properties, which has developed many nearby multi-family and mixed-use complexes including Sugarloaf Walk, then signed an agreement with Duggal’s company and applied to change the zoning to multifamily residential without an age restriction.

The plan met a swift backlash. Planning Commission and county commission hearings in May were filled with opponents. County staff and the Planning Commission recommended denial, noting the property is in an area designated for established single-family neighborhoods under Gwinnett’s unified plan.

At the county commission meeting, the crowd occasionally laughed at Tony Powell, the attorney for Brand Properties, and shouted at the suggestion the vote be delayed at least a month.

“This is not the place for a high-density property,” said Kristen Lindenmayer, whose house is next to the land. “It should be a single-family type of property, at the very least an age-restricted property.”

Some voiced skepticism that building senior housing there is impossible.

“There are a number of age-restricted communities that are in Gwinnett County that are thriving and are actually being built right now,” District 3 Commissioner Jasper Watkins said.

The crowd cheered when the five-member commission unanimously voted to deny the rezoning request.

The May hearing reflected heightened interest in the Sugarloaf area, where Gas South District is being redeveloped. The county commission the same night rejected a proposal for about 600 apartments across from Gas South Arena, on property currently owned by the Southern Baptist Convention, and for a new gas station north of the arena.

Diplomat Infraprop Sugarloaf sued late last month in Gwinnett County Superior Court, alleging the county has taken its property without compensation or due process because it can’t be developed as currently zoned. It added commissioners refused to give Brand Properties an extension “due to the strong and completely improper influence of the audience.”

The lawsuit seeks an order requiring Gwinnett rezone the property or at least remove the age restriction.

District 1 Commissioner Kirkland Carden, who represents the Sugarloaf area, declined to comment on the litigation but said a four-story apartment building would be intrusive behind low-density single-family neighborhoods.

“If it was on the other side of the street, there would have been a solid argument for it,” Carden said.

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