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Nudist resort’s lawsuit against county officials goes to court
Nudist resort lawsuit
Senior Judge Richard Winegarden critiques the indoor pool’s original drawing Friday, later saying that there’s not a “vested right to build an unsafe building.” - photo by Julia Fechter

For two full days on Jan. 20 and 21, attorneys pored over documents in order to discern whether local fire officials were justified in issuing stop-work orders for forthcoming structures at Paradise Valley Resort Club, located in eastern Dawson County.

Representatives for the clothing-optional or nudist resort went to court after suing Fire Marshal and Division Chief Jeff Bailey, Fire Chief and EMA Director Danny Thompson and Lt. Chris Archer of Fire Prevention. A decision has not yet been made in the case. 

Paradise Valley asked for a writ of mandamus to lift stop-work orders on a greeting room and welcome center additions, wine bar, cabanas, indoor pool and fitness center. Jeff Wasserman owns the resort. 

The plaintiff is also seeking approximately $50,000 for attorney fees and costs going back to October 2018, said lawyer Joseph Homans. 

Paul Frickey of Jarrard and Davis, Dawson County government’s current law firm, represented the three defendants. 

The resort that became Paradise Valley started as a nudist campground in the late 1970’s. Now, it’s a gated premises that’s expanded to be over 100 acres, filled with yearly RV sites, condominiums for long-term leases, homes, apartments, pools, bars and various areas for group assemblies. 

Wasserman started working at the resort in 2006 before purchasing it three years later. On Oct. 27, 2016, he went in front of the Board of Commissioners and requested a master plan rezone update for an indoor pool and fitness center, a wine bar and more land for RV and tent sites. Over 200 people showed up to that meeting.

Senior Superior Court Judge Richard Winegarden was assigned to the case Wednesday, after Judge Bonnie Oliver was unable to hear it. As a senior judge, Winegarden hears cases across state superior courts in Georgia. He will make the final decision in the case, rather than a jury, as well as serve as the case’s fact-finder. 

 

Code requirements

The stop-work orders are in place for the greeting room, welcome center, wine bar, cabanas and indoor pool because of lacking life-safety plans, according to Chief Bailey’s testimony during the two-day hearing. 

The fire marshal acts under the authority of multiple codes, such as Dawson County’s ordinance and the 2018 International Building and Fire Codes with adopted state amendments. At least a month prior to beginning construction, a property owner or agent is required to submit commercial and fire-life safety plans to the fire marshal for approval. 

Two sets of plans are required to be submitted, with Planning and Development possessing one set and the other then being returned to the applicant to be kept on the construction site at all times for review. 

Fire personnel perform 80 and 100-percent inspections on forthcoming building sites before issuing certificates of occupancy.

Reviewing construction plans beforehand, Bailey said, allows him and his colleagues to interact with local architects or engineers on a project. Having plans also allows them to ensure that measures like fire alarms or handicap-accessible features will be present in a proposed building.

This mitigates them having to tell an applicant during inspection that a building wasn’t properly designed or built, so that structure then has to be retrofitted or partially demolished to verify safety aspects, which is more difficult than installing them at an earlier time. 

People who build without approval or in contrast to approved plans from which an appeal hasn’t  been taken violate the county ordinance and are subject to the issuance of a stop-work order.

 

Timeline

Bailey became the fire marshal at the end of August 2018. Roughly two months later, he and others were anonymously tipped off to Paradise Valley’s clubhouse having deviated from the process of commercial construction. He saw other potentially problematic structures while he was visiting for that violation, and he was not able to view the required stamped construction drawings.

As Wasserman’s lawyer, Homans objected to mention of an anonymous tip as hearsay, while Frickey argued it went to Bailey’s state of mind as to why he went out to the resort. If a potential life-safety violation is brought to the fire marshal’s attention, Bailey testified he’s obligated to verify it. 

Judge Winegarden asked Bailey why he considered the clubhouse commercial in nature.

“Any reasonable-minded person would assume residential [to be] for someone to live or be from the outdoors…none of those can properly be deemed residential structures by any definition,” Bailey said. 

Homans argued that the structures under the lawsuit’s stop-work orders were issued based on residential guidelines. The permits for the welcome center and greeting room, indoor pool, cabanas and wine bar were issued between fall 2016 and spring 2018. 

Wasserman testified that he or people he hired tended to hand-draw plans with basic dimensions and marking to go with permits. He said he had never been asked to submit a separate set of plans for what he deemed residential structures. It was always his understanding that site plans were given from the planning to fire departments. 

A letter from Planning dated Dec. 18, 2018 extended Wasserman’s building permits for two years, until that date in 2020. The buildings would still have to meet all applicable codes through the later time. 

On Feb. 5, 2019, stop-work orders were issued due to deficiencies with the welcome center fire wall; lacking details about the greeting room’s occupancy type and load to determine life-safety features; and lack of full plans for the wine bar and indoor pool/fitness center. 

While the firewall was approved two weeks later, Bailey said there weren’t plans for it and requested plans for the greeting room, wine bar and indoor pool. 

Wasserman testified that it can be “very hard” to label buildings uses at Paradise Valley and later added that buildings represent different levels of assembly, all while being behind a closed gate, similar to how other subdivisions would have amenities. 

Bailey clarified that amenities in subdivisions are still subject to fire and life-safety rules. 

Though there was some confusion about the greeting room being a nightclub, Wasserman said it wasn’t and was later able to have a fire alarm company submit a plan. 

Later that February, the cabanas or community rooms were issued a stop-work order. In March, Bailey met with an engineer Wasserman hired to discuss life-safety plans for that structure. Plans for the cabanas were submitted, but Bailey didn’t review them. 

Leading up to the summer, Wasserman tried administratively appealing the stop-work orders while continuing to meet with local leaders. The county has maintained that appeals can only be processed for building codes, not the fire code. 

At the beginning of June 2019, Wasserman met with county officials again to go over what was needed for new permits. The cabanas and indoor pool were split into two separate permits, as the combined structure was split so each area would be under 5,000 square feet, with walking decks to connect them. A second engineer submitted life-safety drawings for these structures. 

Bailey signed the permits as an acknowledgement, not approval. The permits that were issued required life-safety plans, he said. 

Afterwards, the orientation for the cabanas were changed but kept at the same dimensions. Originally, the pool was planned to be in the middle of a larger structure, but it was moved to the rightmost side of the fitness center. 

Wasserman still referenced the old permit for the drawing of the indoor pool and said it wasn’t voided while maintaining that the newer permit was for the building above it. 

Sarah Martin, the resort’s manager, testified that she attempted several times over the next year to find an architect who would re-draw the already-in-progress buildings. However, she was unable to find someone before the 80-percent inspection time. 

By the end of August 2020, the cabanas were almost built, while a foundation was set out for the pool. The stop-work order on the wine bar was still in effect. 

Since Bailey said he had no idea what he and Lt. Archer would be inspecting on Aug. 26, 2020, they brought blank orders with them to Paradise Valley. Wasserman could not provide them with plans for the greeting room, welcome center, cabanas or wine bar. 

They could not inspect without construction plans. The next week, Archer delivered stop-work orders citing the code violated on the notices. 

As of now, the welcome center still needs drywall and flooring, and the wine bar likewise needs walls and floors. The greeting room just needs an interior floor, while the majority of work remains to be done on the pool and fitness center. 

Wasserman estimated that Paradise Valley has spent over $1.687 million on the new buildings so far. 

It was Bailey’s opinion that the building permits weren’t properly issued to Paradise Valley, given the lack of construction or life-safety plans beyond basic drawings.

The judge asked how often it is that sufficient plans aren’t available for buildings. 

“This is the only instance I’ve been directly involved with…[out of] thousands,” Bailey said. 

Homans argued that good faith efforts were made on the part of Paradise Valley, despite oversight of government officials regarding the building permits. He elaborated that the resort has invested a lot of money into these new buildings and that oversimplifying his client’s case “wasn’t fair.” 

Frickey argued against the plaintiff’s bid for vested rights, maintaining that giving the resort a pass now would mean giving them future leniency. He reaffirmed the fire department officials’ duties to make sure buildings are safe to be occupied. 

As of Monday afternoon, a decision has not been announced in this civil case.