Posted by: Patricia Salkin | August 6, 2015

GA Supreme Court Holds Property Owners’ Use of Their Property as an Event Venue Moved Beyond that Expected or Customary for a One-Family Dwelling

Thomas and Lee Burton own an oceanfront property in the East Beach area of St. Simons Island, within a single-family residential zoning district classified as “R–6” under the Glynn County Zoning Ordinance. After the completion of a large, lavish home on the property in 2008, the Burtons began offering the property, known as Villas de Suenos, as a short-term vacation rental. Over the next few years, Villa de Suenos became increasingly popular as a venue for weddings and other large gatherings; from 2010 through May 2013, at least 79 events were held at the property, with many exceeding 100 guests. In 2010, East Beach residents began raising complaints to the community homeowners’ association and local law enforcement regarding noise, traffic, and parking issues arising from events held at Villa de Suenos. The county issued the Burtons a cease and desist letter, contending that their operation of the property in this manner was not a permitted use in an R–6 district, and requesting that the Burtons immediately discontinue such use. In response, the Burtons filed suit against Glynn County, along with each of its commissioners and its chief of police, seeking declaratory and injunctive relief and writs of mandamus and prohibition to stop the County’s efforts to enforce its zoning ordinance so as to prohibit the use of their property as an event venue. The trial court adopted county’s interpretation of zoning ordinance, directed property owners to comply with ordinance, and denied their equal protection claim.

Here, the court found that the section of the ordinance in question was “designed to encourage the formation and continuance of a stable, healthy environment for one-family dwellings”, and to promote the desired “low-to-medium density residential” development in R–6 districts, the ordinance expressly aimed “to discourage any encroachment by commercial, industrial, high density residential, or other uses capable of adversely affecting the single-family residential character of the district.” The court therefore concluded that the frequency of the events and the apparently systematic manner in which the property has been marketed and utilized for large-scale gatherings supported the conclusion that the property’s use as an event venue has, as the trial court found, “moved beyond that expected or customary for a one-family dwelling.”

The Burtons also argued that the trial court lacked authority to consider the motion given the pendency of the appeal. Because the trial court’s December 20, 2013 order did no more than determine that the Burtons’ use of their property was in violation of the zoning ordinance and direct them to comply with the terms of the ordinance. The order therefore constituted a declaratory judgment, and the trial court therefore lacked jurisdiction to entertain the motion for contempt during the pendency of the appeal. The judgment was therefore affirmed.

Burton v Glynn County, 2015 WL 4183018 (GA 7/13/2015)

The opinion can be accessed at:

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