The problem is that the government sold the land years ago to a developer which sold it to Darling International, a processor of grease for recycling. Plus, a couple of changes to the law and some faulty recordkeeping compounded the matter.
The one thing the attorneys arguing for the two sides in the case agreed on was the 40 years of legal wrangling triggered by the Lake Alma project.
“This is the capstone of 40 years of litigation,” said Bates Lovett, attorney for Darling.
Ken Smith, lawyer for Larry Hugh and Harry Hoke Carter, agreed.
“When you’re talking about Lake Alma, you’re talking about a litigious mess,” he said.
In 1968, the federal Model Cities Program led officials in Alma and Bacon County to seize 2,500 acres four years later to build a lake, including 95 acres that Hoke S. Carter was paid $25,000 for. But the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency blocked construction of the lake and began decades of legal battles.
The local governments gave up the dream of having a lake in 1990, and two years later asked the General Assembly to enact a law allowing them to sell the land back to the original property owners. It didn’t allow for heirs to get it back.
In 2003, the city and county transferred title to 7 acres of the Carter parcel to the development authority which immediately turned around and told it to Southeastern Maintenance & Construction Inc. Then in ‘05 and ‘07, Southeastern sold it do Darling which has buildings on the property.
Three years after Darling got final title to all 7 acres, another law change gave the heirs the right to buy back family land. That’s how the brothers got back all of their father’s property except the 7 acres.
The brothers sued Darling and won, but the company appealed to the state’s highest court. In his arguments Monday, Lovett, the company lawyer told the justices that the company was the rightful owner because the brothers had had no right to purchase it until the law changed after Darling had already bought it.
But Smith said the brothers are entitled to it because the county never recorded in its minutes the actual sale. Also, he said, the city and county can’t transfer property to a private developer like Southeastern if the land was seized for a public purpose. It can only be used for that purpose or another public purpose, he said. To do so, the governments would have had to draft an economic-development plan.
“We have found no cases where this court has said you can take public land and convey it without an economic plan,” he told the justices.
The justices will have four to six months to hand down a decision, but Justice David Nahmias did observe that sometimes in real estate cases where a transaction has an error, the current owner gets to keep the property but the rightful owner can file a lawsuit and get a financial award. If that’s the outcome, it will mean the 40 years of litigation from Lake Alma won’t be ending with this appeal.