VALDOSTA -- Three unincorporated island residents successfully challenged the City of Valdosta and won the first battle -- the city can no longer proceed with the Aug. 1 annexation as planned.
Hoot Gibson, J.V. "Bud" Dasher and Larry Colson asked for the temporary injunction to freeze the city's annexation while they, along with other residents, actively pursue a class-action lawsuit asking the city to leave the residents alone or pay no less than $8,000,000 in damages for loss of septic tanks and wells in addition to associated city services costs.
Though City Manager Larry Hanson and City Attorney George Talley agree the city cannot legally force residents to connect with services, Hanson said many residents will need to replace septic and well systems after 10 years and the city is willing to build infrastructure and wait until homeowners are comfortable and want to connect.
Sue Stokes, a resident of unincorporated island 32, lived in the county for 50 years and said she and neighbors are worried about the financial burden of lost septic tanks and wells despite hooking up to city sewer and water.
Stokes said she would be satisfied to use her system for the next few years and switch over but worries about the added burden of ground contamination and septic tank removal.
"No one will come here and remove (the tanks) and clean the soil that will lay under them," Stokes said. "We can't put a swimming pool there or anything else.
"The yards I have worked to be an asset to my property will be uprooted and trees will have to come down."
Stokes joins some 900 island residents who signed forms approving a lawsuit and cited reasons similar to hers for pursuing litigation.
Some even contributed funds to the cause; so far the amount totals around $15,000.
Gibson said many residents are elderly and on fixed incomes but believe wholeheartedly in the movement and scraped up precious dollars to further their legal standing.
The case has not been approved for class-action status yet, but Gibson and others hope the monetary contributions will create a commonality among residents and strengthen the petition to add more names to the case.
"We're not against progress," Gibson said. "Bud and I are fighting for people's rights who can't fight for themselves."
Pope Langdale, attorney for the residents, said the city has violated islanders' rights in many areas and alleges the ordinance is invalid under Georgia law.
Langdale also questions the planning for infrastructure, claiming he has yet to see an engineer's plan of exact costs and dates.
Hanson said the city has finished water and sewer projects similar to this within a three-year period.
He also carries a hard white binder filled with estimates and projections about infrastructure, from the exact soil type of each island to the precise yardage for water lines.
Hanson said a professional engineer documented such estimations and the city is confident costs and timelines will remain as projected.
Of the 900 forms approving litigation, several residents added personal comments such as " ... we are on fixed income and cannot afford all the expenses," and " ... the home has been in my family for over 100 years."
One resident who donated $200 wrote this: "I'm sorry I can't commit more money to this effort but when you're only getting Social Security ..."
Gibson said he, Dasher and Colson are upping the effort and forming small campaigns, urging residents to take charge.
"In spite of what the judge said, this is winnable," Gibson said. "The city put up a smokescreen making it look like a lot of problems are with the islands."
Gibson refers to the Declaration of Independence and unalienable rights and said he and the residents are prepared to defend their pursuit of happiness, no matter the cost.
"We plan to take this all the way to the State Supreme Court," Gibson said.
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