The Georgia Supreme Court recently affirmed a trial court’s order requiring a city to pay a developer for the construction of a sewage pump station. The case involves issues of mandamus and the enforcement of ordinances.
In City of Hoschton v. Horizon Communities, a city negotiated with a developer (“Horizon”) for the construction of a sewage pump station to accommodate the needs of Horizon’s new development, as well as other unrelated developments. In exchange, the developer would recoup construction costs from (i) other developers using the station and (ii) the city through future sewer connection and tap fees.
The city enacted an ordinance addressing construction of the pump station which read:
Developer shall [construct and] dedicate the new sewer infrastructure to the city but reserves the right to recoup a portion of the investment from subsequent development on a lot tap basis on or before June 6, 2010.
Subsequently, a new developer (“Elite”) began negotiations with the city for another unrelated development. A city official told Elite to pay a connection fee of $200,000 to the city for an upgrade of a separate pump station. However, the city decided to abandon the other pump station, and instead began flowing Elite sewage to the Horizon pump station.
Trial Court Grants Mandamus
Horizon responded with a mandamus claim. It sought an order requiring the city to comply with the ordinance to pay construction costs allocated to Elite’s usage of the Horizon pump station. In other words, Horizon asked to recoup the percentage of construction costs associated with Elite’s usage. After an evidentiary hearing, the trial court granted a mandamus absolute and ordered the city to pay $191,631 (based on Elite’s usage capacity), plus costs of litigation and attorney fees.
Entitlement to Mandamus
The city appealed arguing, among other things, that mandamus was not appropriate. It claimed that the ordinance did not create a legal obligation on the city to act. The Supreme Court did not agree.
The Supreme Court initially explained that “Mandamus will issue against a public official only where the petitioner has demonstrated a clear legal right to relief or a gross abuse of discretion.” The duty to be enforced “must be a duty arising by law, either expressly or by necessary implication.” The law “must not only authorize the act be done, but must require its performance.”
Applying the above rules to the ordinance, the Supreme Court agreed with the trial court. Namely, in exchange for Horizon’s construction of the pumping station, the city was obligated to reimburse Horizon for its construction costs in proportion to the capacity used by other developments. Furthermore, the Supreme Court upheld the trial court’s award of attorney fees and costs after a finding of bad faith.