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Paradise Valley appeals decision in lawsuit against county
Nudist resort lawsuit
Dawson County-based nudist resort Paradise Valley Resort Club has appealed the decision in its lawsuit against county officials, citing that trial court Senior Judge Richard Winegarden erred in upholding five stop work orders on the resort’s forthcoming construction and renovation projects. - photo by Julia Fechter

A local clothing-optional resort has now filed an appeal in a lawsuit involving Dawson County’s stop work orders on five of its different projects. 

Lawyer Joseph “Joey” Homans filed a June 17 appeal brief for his client, Paradise Valley Resort Club, in Georgia’s Court of Appeals. Since this is a pending case, both Homans and the county’s law firm, Jarrard and Davis, declined to comment. 

This action follows a January bench trial and Senior Superior Court Judge Richard Winegarden’s February ruling in the county’s favor. Last year, plaintiff Paradise Valley petitioned Dawson County Superior Court for writ of mandamus against defendants Fire Marshal and Division Chief Jeff Bailey, Fire Chief and EMA Director Danny Thompson and Lt. Chris Archer of Fire Prevention to lift the stop work orders. 

Winegarden was assigned to the case shortly before the January trial since Judge Bonnie Oliver was unable to hear it. Because it was a bench trial, he both served as the case’s fact-finder and made the final decision, as opposed to a jury in a jury trial. 

In his February decision, the senior judge ruled that the county’s five stop work orders against Paradise Valley’s projects were valid and that the structures’ building permits had expired.

The nudist resort occupies about 100 acres in Dawson County, which encompasses residential units, RVs; group gathering spaces; a restaurant, coffee shop and small bars; as well as a pool. It first opened in 1976 and is gated, with access limited to residents, guests and people with day passes, according to the appeals document. 

 

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 January trial. 

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.


Timeline

Jeff Wasserman started working with Paradise Valley in 2006 and became its owner in 2009. The Board of Commissioners approved the resort’s current site plan in October 2016. 

Building permits were issued on Sept. 26, 2016, to add a greeting room and welcome center to the existing clubhouse and community room the county approved in 2001, the appeal stated. 

Work began on those projects, and then on Nov. 20, 2017 and May 21, 2018, permits were also acquired for the forthcoming wine bar and indoor swimming pool/rec room. 

With those permit applications, the appeal stated that the appellant submitted the required documents, including approved/recorded plats; labeled floor plans; site plans; sewer/septic plans; and builder licenses, registrations and state cards. 

Chief Bailey became the county’s fire marshal at the end of August 2018, after building permits had been issued and work began. He voiced concerns in October 2018 about the previously-submitted plans, even though Chief Thompson and Lt. Archer had approved similar plans and documents for an addition to another resort clubhouse in July 2016, according to the resort’s appeal. 

During the January 2022 trial, Bailey testified that 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.

If a potential life-safety violation is brought to the fire marshal’s attention, Bailey said then that he’s obligated to verify it. 

In a county letter dated Dec. 18, 2018, then-Planning and Development Director Jameson Kinley notified Wasserman that the permits at issue and others for construction at the resort had been extended for two years, until that date in 2020. The buildings would still have to meet all applicable codes through the later time. 

 

 

“Respondents (the county) first challenged Kinley’s authority to authorize such an extension during the January 2022 trial, but concede that permit expiration is not a basis for the stop work orders,” the appeal stated. 

County inspectors approved the five structures’ construction as of Dec. 21, 2018, and Paradise Valley continued building until the first round of stop work orders was issued on February 5, 2019.

At that time, Bailey issued work to halt 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. 

The fire marshal then approved work authorized for the welcome center but upheld stop work doors for all five projects on Feb. 21, 2019, and Chief Thompson backed him up, as written in a Feb. 26, 2019 letter. 

Wasserman and the resort tried appealing, with the county answering that its Construction Board of Adjustments and Appeals only presided over its building officials and not those in the fire or fire marshal's offices. On a second appeal, the county said that the state fire marshal could only address matters of the state and not county-level fire marshal’s offices. 

Bailey was provided with an architect’s handwritten plans for the wine bar on March 12, 2019, and he subsequently rejected those plans. 

Following a June 3 meeting involving resort and county officials, all of the stop work orders were lifted, and a permit was approved that separated the indoor pool from the community room, with restricted uses for the pool portion and each area now to be under 5,000 square feet, with walking decks to connect them. 

The orientation for the cabanas was 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. 

During the trial, 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. 

Paradise Valley’s appeal brief stated that Bailey initialed a permit and sketch that Wasserman was told to prepare by the then-Planning director and other county personnel.

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

A second engineer submitted life-safety drawings for these structures, Wasserman said during the trial. 

Construction then resumed on all five projects–the greeting room, welcome center, wine bar, indoor pool and community rooms or cabanas–and county building inspectors regularly inspected and approved building efforts.

The resort was again issued stop work orders on Aug. 26 and Sept. 3, 2020, saying that insufficient plans had been submitted to authorize the building permits. 

Plans and details must be submitted bearing a licensed architect’s seal or engineer’s review and approval before construction can begin. The appeal states that Bailey failed to inspect during the construction process or on Aug. 26, 2020 because Wasserman could not provide those necessary plans. 

Another administrative appeal proved unsuccessful on Paradise Valley’s part, with the county clarifying that it did not adopt the part of the state fire code that would allow for a fire-related appeals board.

Wasserman tried unsuccessfully to acquire the necessary plans in September and October 2020, as the projects were about 80 percent complete. Then in August 2021, the resort’s lawyer filed for a writ of mandamus petition, followed by the January 2022 trial. 

Up to September 2020, the resort had spent about $1.6 million on the five different projects. 

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.

 

Appeal arguments 

In the appeal brief, Homans built his arguments on the philosophy of vested rights. In other words, once building permits are issued to a landowner, that person or entity has the right to develop their property during the permits’ term and/or for a reasonable time after they’ve expired. 

This right cannot be taken away retroactively by stopping construction through subsequent regulation, like requiring supplemental plans, the appeal stated. 

The appeal stated that Georgia’s building and fire prevention codes undermine the trial court’s ruling that the resort’s permits have expired, with the date of expiration referencing a construction project’s commencement rather than completion.  

The document also said that the trial court erred in finding that the resort’s building permits had expired after work began pursuant to the permits, when that was not the reason why the stop work orders were issued. 

“Appellees concede that ‘permit expiration’ is not a basis for the stop work orders and is not an issue in this litigation…[and] appellees acknowledge that any issue related to the permits expiring did not justify the stop work orders,” the appeal added. 

The appeal asserted that the trial court found incorrectly that the resort didn’t acquire vested rights because the permits were improperly issued and elaborated that the court’s decision focused on the discretion granted pursuant to the construction codes but not the discretion granted pursuant to when the building permits were originally issued.

The appeal argued that Bailey, during the trial, acknowledged fire code exemptions to the requirement for stamped-and-sealed plans. According to the fire code, such exemptions include that construction documents and data are not required when obtaining that information would entail review of documents not necessary to obtain compliance. The state building code allows for building officials to approve modification on a case-by-case basis if such a project keeps with the code’s intent and purpose and “does not lessen health, accessibility, life and fire safety or structural requirements.”

The resort’s appeal noted Bailey’s disagreement with the previous permits issued, even though his predecessors had the authority to make those decisions. It also stated that the trial court failed to recognize a distinction between inspection of plans submitted with permit applications and inspection of construction pursuant to the permits and erroneously found that Bailey performed an inspection on Aug. 26, 2020.

Likewise, the appeal maintained the trial court erred by finding no way for administrative appeal, when appeals permitted for other decisions rendered by other county building inspectors and the state fire marshal’s office. 

Another part of the appeal argued that Dawson County and the defendants knew that the resort got the five building permits based on details submitted as of June 3, 2019.

County building inspectors looked at and approved construction through the time of the fall 2020 stop work orders. The county failed to seek revocation despite Bailey’s concerns going back to October 2018 and knowledge of the two permits and sketch approved during that June 2019 meeting. 

The appeal continued that “the specific relief sought” should not control “the government’s failure to timely seek enforcement of an interpretation of construction codes different than the interpretation of the previous fire marshal and building officials” 

“Instead, the court should find that [the] appellees acquiesced in the interpretation of the previous fire marshal and building officials,” the appeal stated. “Appellees failed to timely seek enforcement of Appellee Bailey’s interpretation by waiting for two years and then fifteen months after Bailey initialed building permits and an additional sketch while Appellant proceeded with construction.”

DCN will continue to follow Paradise Valley’s civil case.