A jury sided with a family against Effingham County last week in a land condemnation and fair market value trial.
It all started when the county condemned the property of a property owner in Effingham County for the construction of Effingham Parkway. However, when the county failed to adequately compensate the property owners, a jury awarded the property owners more than nine times what the county had originally offered – plus interest.
Property in Question
The more than three-year saga centers on a 12,917-acre undeveloped property off Goshen Road in Rincon. It is owned by Thomas C. Strickland Jr. and Terri Strickland.
Effingham County, through the County Commissioners and represented by attorney George Lewis, applied for the right-of-way area for the construction of Effingham Parkway. Citing a “competent land appraiser,” the county argued that the proposed price of $80,500, or $6,232.09 per acre, for the nearly thirteen acres was “fair and equitable.”
There is a 90-foot natural gas pipeline on the property that runs parallel to Effingham Parkway.
Due to the impending construction of the property, the property was taken over as part of the Eminent Domain process out of greater public interest and against the will and without consent of the property owner. Therefore, the county filed a motion to condemn the property and claim it anyway. Under Georgian law, this is better known as the “Declaration of Taking Method.” The Stricklands then rejected the lawsuit, saying they were dissatisfied with the level of compensation, and a lengthy court battle ensued at taxpayer expense.
Although the Stricklands appealed within 30 days of the condemnation, the county was allowed to proceed with taking possession of the property in the meantime.
June 10, 2020 – The county files a “motion to condemn” and deposits $80,500 into a court account for the property. The relevant order was signed by a senior court judge. The Stricklands were served with the petition and order.
July 10, 2020 – The Stricklands appealed the amount of compensation offered by the county and requested a jury trial.
June 21, 2023 – Three years after it was first filed, the trial date for the case is set for mid-August. George Lewis, county attorney, writes a letter to Judge Gates Peed informing him that the case is not yet ready for trial. He points out that they could possibly be ready in September or October. Lewis said the appraiser had been out of work due to an extended illness and was in the process of updating the appraisal. The same expert is also expected to be out of town during the scheduled trial date in August, so he will not be available to testify. Lewis also cites the lack of witness testimony as a reason he was unprepared for the trial.
July 12, 2023 – Judge Peed continues the case and sets jury selection for October 17, 2023.
October 3, 2023 – County attorney George Lewis files a motion asking the judge to prohibit the Stricklands’ lawyers from asking questions about the project’s financing to jurors at the upcoming trial. Lewis argued that the funding source for Effingham Parkway had nothing to do with the condemnation of the property.
Lewis also wanted to exclude any evidence that was not presented to the county prior to trial because it was not a surprise, and he did not want the Stricklands to discuss evidence about the location and design of the road.
Finally, Lewis argued that the jury should not be able to know about the initial appraisal or that the county had previously offered $80,500 and previous negotiations had taken place.
At some point, the county conducts a second appraisal and estimates the impact of the withdrawal, consequential effects, and resulting impact on the Stricklands at $321,850, which is likely why the county wanted the first appraisal and offer of $80,500 not to be presented to the jury.
A private firm hired by the Stricklands estimated the same costs and impacts at $1,011,037.
October 2023 – The Stricklands’ attorney files a motion to enjoin the county from producing evidence about the assessed tax value of the property, the cost of the Effingham Parkway project, other property interests held by the Stricklands, the assets of the Stricklands or their businesses and amounts to others Property owners are paid and consequences of a jury verdict.
7th–8th November 2023 – The jury hears evidence from both sides.
The jury ultimately found in favor of the Stricklands, awarding them $766,110 plus daily interest of $146.92 for an additional $183,209. The total price for the Stricklands of Effingham County was $949,319.24.
The jury’s verdict was officially signed as an order by Judge Gates Peed on November 9, 2023.
The Stricklands were represented by Statesboro attorney Andrew LaVoie.