"The county has taken our land, our property value and has broken our spirits," Floyd said. "The only good thing that came out of the lawsuit is that we forced them to admit that they told us we could keep our traffic light as long as we remained a church. This has been an exhaustive, miserable, 2-year battle, and we may have won the settlement, but we're really left with nothing."
The simple, white church building, built in 1932, is situated at the intersection of Cherokee Street and Jiles Road, though the church's history dates back 178 years in Kennesaw. Last fall, the county paid the church $295,740 through Declaration of Taking for the 0.3 acre of land in front of the church, which the county needed for the Jiles Road widening project. The project gives motorists three lanes of traffic to turn onto Cherokee Street, directly in front of the church.
Because of the purchase, the church, made up mainly of elderly residents, sits 60 feet from the edge of the road, Floyd said. He said the church was looking to sell the land to a commercial developer, as the widening had made the location unpractical for the church and unsafe for its members.
In 2008, the city of Kennesaw granted the property commercial zoning, and the church signed a sales contract with developer Brandon Ashkouti for $3.3 million. But church members said the county then told them the traffic light easement would be removed if the church sold to a commercial developer.
Without the traffic light, Ashkouti had no choice but to pull out of the contract, said the church's broker, Ross Westbrook. That left the church with a property that has no practical access point and therefore cannot be sold as a commercial property at a reasonable price.
In the lawsuit, filed in the Cobb County Superior Court, the church was seeking either for the traffic light and driveway to remain for any future commercial use or for $2 million to cover some of the value the property would lose through not being able to sell to a commercial developer without the traffic light.
Floyd said he wasn't really hoping for the $2 million, but rather to keep the light for future commercial use, or $600,000 to $700,000 to pay for attorneys fees, appraisals and expert witnesses, and to be able to have some left over to keep the church's costly bi-weekly food pantry going.
The church was granted $434,450 from the jury on June 26 after the six-day trial, $295,740 of which the county already owed for its purchase of the 0.3 acre in front of the church. Floyd said the church owed $293,000 in attorney fees, but its attorney, Scott Jacobson, of Holt Ney Zatcoff & Wasserman, LLP in Marietta, cut it back to $101,000 so the church could afford to pay him. The county agreed to allow the church to keep the traffic light, as long as the property continued to be used by the church; otherwise, the traffic light and driveway would be removed.
Floyd said the church's building was moved back about a half acre in the 1960s so the county could build the Jiles Road intersection.
County officials would not comment because the church filed a motion on July 20 for a new trial in Cobb Superior Court.
In the motion for a new trial, Jacobson stated 15 reasons for the request, citing prejudice by "improper comments by the Court during trial respecting Cobb County's financial condition." Jacobson states that was in addition to other "errors" he perceived throughout the trial conducted in front of Cobb County Superior Court Judge Jim Bodiford.
Floyd said Bodiford continuously "led the jury, telling them over and over how broke the county was and reminding them by telling them each day that they could have a sandwich, but that they would have to get their own water because the county couldn't afford to buy it. And that witnesses on the stand would have to give paper and pens back to the county because the county is in a budget crunch. So it didn't take the jury five minutes to make a decision."
Floyd said the motion for a new trial has not been granted or denied, and that neither the church nor its property is for sale, as "no one will pay us what we would need to move." Floyd said the church would remain on the property, though its membership has dropped from 104 members when the Journal first covered the lawsuit last November to 55 members. Floyd said the uncertainty of the church's future drove some members away, and the pending lawsuit kept others from joining. Floyd said the food pantry's future is also uncertain if the church has to cover all of the costs, though, luckily, several Kennesaw churches, organizations and an anonymous donor have pitched in to keep the popular community service afloat. Floyd said the pantry feeds about local 300 families a month.
"We do it twice a week, and each time, it takes about $2,500. Our offering plate last Sunday had $700 in it. So we can barely survive as a church on our offering. But Kennesaw Methodist Church and New Beginnings Methodist Church have helped us out tremendously. The Kennesaw Business Association has taken up food for us four times a year, which has been wonderful, and an anonymous lady from Kennesaw Methodist donated $25,000, which was so wonderful. But we're struggling. It's a struggle," Floyd said.
Jacobson said the county's payment has been paid into the court system, but the church has not yet received it.
Floyd said, "We're here for now, but it's taken a lot out of us. I'm not sure where we'll go from here. We're hoping for the best, and some of the members have been here for generations, many in their 70s and 80s, and we all want to keep the church going, but I just don't know what's going to happen. I just don't know."