Justice For My Family

The Details Post: By Amy

This is a long post and I apologize for how much is presented here and how emotionally taxing this journey may be. Instead of sending this out multiple times to multiple people, we wanted a consolidated account of events all in one place, and accessible to anyone who might be willing to help us in this fight!

Tim lost his customer facing position back in June due to the CV-19 pandemic. I have been out of work since Fall of 2019 after the birth of our daughter, not knowing that 2020 would take our financial security away. We knew we would not be able to carry rent forever, and we had a recreational vehicle (camper) with a low monthly payment so we decided to start looking for a piece of property to park it on in order to keep a roof over our heads. We found one in Polk County GA that wasn’t exactly what we were looking for but was pretty close and it was listed at a sustainable price point. We researched local code to see if we could do all that we planned before making an offer on the land. According to A-1 code 708.17 the property could be used for all agricultural and horticultural uses (with some provisions in place that were not applicable to us), and under sub-section H. we would be permitted one and two family dwellings where the land was used for bona fide agricultural use, provided that the dwellings only housed those persons and their immediate families employed in carrying out such use (see photos of code below). Further, recreational vehicles were specifically listed in the definitions of a dwelling (see cover photo, also shown below).

On August 20, 2020 we purchased the lot with our close personal friend/partner Matt. We spent the next couple of months preparing for the move. We repaired fencing, installed posts and gates, built suitable homes for all the animals and worked to clear the land. During this time we had several amicable meetings with our neighbor. We let him know what we planned to do and how we planned to go about it. We made it clear that we were doing all the work ourselves and that nothing would be perfect overnight, but that we would work hard to keep improving the property. He never once offered any objection in any of these meetings.

Both campers have been delivered to the property.

We have our first meeting with local code enforcement. The officer says he wants to see what we are doing with the land. He is very amicable. Tim is amicable. Tim walks the officer around the property, shows him what we have been doing as well as informing him of our future plans. Everything seemed fine. The officer gave our son a children’s book he had written and left.

The code officer comes back out to the property and asks if we intend to build. Tim tells him we do in the future, but are not ready to build at this time. The code officer leaves.

Later that afternoon, the code officer returns and asks if we have started the permitting process. Tim said we had not because we had other things we needed to get done first to build up the farm and that we had not even selected a house plan. The officer advised that we would have to start the permitting process to be able to stay on the property. Tim recited the code that allowed us to be there and the officer admitted that he wasn’t familiar with agricultural code. He recommended that Tim go to the building department. Tim went and got the information we would need to start the permitting process and confirmed it was not in our scope or budget at this time. We couldn’t afford to even if we wanted to. We printed out a copy of the Polk County code to show the officer at his next visit.

The officer returned to see if we had filed the permits. Tim let him know that we had not and showed him all the paperwork we had printed out detailing our right to use the property as we were. Here he referenced 708.17, subsections A and H., Section 34-2-Definitions dwellings, buildings, or structures, and the plat map showing the property was located in an A-1 Agricultural zone. The tax assessor map shows that the property is classed as R-4 Residential but also states that classification does not indicate zoning. Tim let him know that we aren’t trying to be difficult and asked if the officer could show him where the code we presented would be invalidated. The officer advised that everything looked to be in order, asked Tim if he was an attorney, and then said he would “run it up the flag pole” and that if we didn’t hear from him by the end of the day we were “golden.” We did not hear from the officer again that day, and believed everything had been handled amicably and legally.

That afternoon, the neighbor was seen in the yard with his dogs and they approached the fence barking. Tim struck up a conversation and let him know about the issues with code we had been having. The neighbor became verbally hostile in a way we had not seen previously in our interactions with him. When asked if he would like us to put up a privacy fence he snapped and kept repeating various vulgarities such as “I don’t want to see that shit!” and “I paid a lot of money for what I have!” and “That’s not code!” Tim remained civil. He asked again if a fence would solve anything but the neighbor was irate and refused to answer. He admitted to being a party to calling code on us.

After a peaceful weekend, we were not expecting a return visit from the code enforcement officer. However, first thing that Monday morning he was back. He said we were in violation of code and that if we remained on the property and were there the next day he would issue a citation. He advised he did not want to write the ticket, but that the decision was made “higher up.” If we were there on 10.27.2020 he would have no choice. Tim asked for a written warning with the code we were allegedly in violation of and the officer would not provide anything. He said something to the effect of “the code is the code.”

We decided that we were probably going to need legal counsel. We called Parker and Lundy and set up an appointment for Wednesday 10.28.20. A friend also recommended Gammon, McFall, and Villarreal mentioning they were the best in town.
Called Gammon/McFall/Villarreal and spoke to McFall. Tim immediately advised that we were having an issue with Polk County Code Enforcement. McFall asked several questions which were answered in good faith. As the call progressed McFall asks, “How did you hear about our firm?” to which we replied he had been recommended by a friend as being the best. He replied, “Because we are, but we also represent the county and would be the ones prosecuting this so that would be a conflict of interest.” Tim and I were speechless that this information was not disclosed at the beginning of the call before he got us to provide details of our defense!!

Shortly after ending the call with McFall, the code officer arrived at the property with the citation. The alleged code violation we were cited with is not actually listed in the code. The citation reads: “County Ordinance 710.02 Living in Campers/RV” but the code is about having temporary buildings/trailers during construction projects and their need to be permitted (see photo below). Our recreational vehicle is a VIN’d vehicle and neither a temporary building or a trailer. The code also does not specifically mention not being allowed to live in such a dwelling. Section 710.01 directly above also states, “Unless specifically permitted,” which we believe we have shown the code that specifically permits us to use the property we legally acquired. The court date listed on the citation is 11.16.2020 at 2PM.

The neighbor again comes to the fence. This time he apologizes for losing his cool and cussing in front of our daughter. He offers to buy the property from us. Tim brushes off the offer.

Several vehicles come to almost complete stop as they drive past the property and stare at us working on the farm. The most notable of these was a woman in a large silver SUV, possibly a Nissan Armada. She was seen slowing on approach, then she slowly passed the lot before turning around on a neighboring road and slowly passed back by on her return trip. The same woman passed by again on 10.30.2020 and we were beginning to feel harrassed.

Early AM maybe around 9: Code enforcement officer returns to the property with the County Building Inspector in a separate vehicle. Tim meets them at the gate. The county officials, acting in an official capacity on behalf of the county, tell us that we have to remove our campers from the property by next Friday at Noon or they will be seized. Tim said he thought he had a court date and a right to due process. Then the building inspector tried to get him to go to the courthouse to speak to Judge Christy Cook Garner without counsel present or they would move forward. Tim advised his wife was ill and that he would need to consult an attorney. The county officials stated that in that case they would expedite this to get us out sooner and that we had until 11AM to call him back with our intention to comply or he was going to go before the judge with the county attorney. This was demanded of us at a quarter to ten in the morning. Tim again advised he had until his court date and a right to due process. During this confrontation the pair also alleged that we could not keep our animals on the property or they would also be seized along with the campers, and they alleged we were squatters and could be removed on those grounds (even without the permission of the land holder, our buddy Matt). The message was clear that they would throw the book until something stuck and that we were not welcome there. Hard line intimidation and harassment by a county official.

Tim called our legal counsel who advised that he believed us to be in the right and he encouraged us to fight this, but that the escalations by the county were turning this into a bigger case than he had capacity to take with 4 other jury trials on his calendar.

We drove around Polk County and were able to photograph 25 other properties within a ten mile radius of our parcel that also had campers/rvs on their lots. Some that appeared lived in. Some stored with pop outs extended, and some in ruin.

Matt’s mom drove to Polk to speak to the building inspector to figure out the issue since he works full time and was unable to make it on his own. The building inspector threatened to get Matt with thousands in fines if he did not comply. Matt has not been on property and has not been cited with anything to this point. The building inspector also says that neither of us will be allowed to permit anything in the future because the property lies in a federal flood-way. He claims we are not allowed to use the septic tank in place on the property for the same reason and that there are federal restrictions on the parcel that would allow him to deny permits. The building inspector also insinuated that the Judge was going to rule in favor of the county no matter what we did. This information was highly distressing to Matt. We encouraged Matt to speak to our loan officer for the property and to calm down. Sent Matt the other properties with recreational vehicles so he could see we were being targeted.

Matt called our agricultural loan officer who advised that there are no such restrictions on our deed that would prevent future permitting or building. She also advised that she could provide this information to the courts upon request. Matt calmed some at this revelation, because he realized the lengths that the county building inspector was going to take to intimidate us into leaving of our own accord. We really feel that Polk County has used harassment and intimidation to force us off our legally acquired land. We feel the threats to withhold future permitting constitute abuse of power.

Tim arrived at the courthouse and overheard the county building inspector and the code officer plotting with the local judge to seize our assets. They did not recognize Tim in a mask without his signature ball cap and had assumed that he did not show up. He casually let them know that he was in fact there and could hear them. The Judge who signed the order was not the Judge hearing the case. The Judge Tim appeared before reviewed the case briefly and asked the code officer if they really wanted to move forward with this. The officer responded that they did. The judge asked Tim how he intended to plead. Tim responded with not guilty. A committal hearing was established with this Judge on January 27, 2021. Tim was under the impression that hearing would allow him to present his side and at that time it would either be dropped or move forward to a jury trial. He left the courthouse.
We received a call from the code enforcement officer saying that he had been back to the property and noticed we were not there. Tim advised that we had been staying elsewhere until the court date just in case. The officer says he has a paper that the Judge wanted to make sure he was given. We agree to meet at the property. On the way to the property we notice the officer parked in the parking lot of a local church just waiting for us. So, we pulled into the church parking lot. Since we have learned not to trust the local county officials we recorded our interaction with the officer. He provided us with a document that stated that Tim was being served with his TRIAL notice and the new date is 11.30.2020 which is 12 days from the date of the notice, with no committal hearing. This is also not a jury trial but a trial in front of the Judge the county has been colluding with and not the one that Tim was in front of on the 16th. There also happens to be a Holiday next week which cuts business hours short. We need 5 thousand dollars immediately to hire counsel before we get railroaded at this sham of a trial on the 30th. We cannot take the chance that the Judge may actually not be on the side of the County. With the way the “Good Ole Boys” are acting, they feel like they are going to get away with this abuse of power. If we stand idly by, this could continue to happen to someone else.

In our recording of the code officer, we have him clearly saying that he does not agree with the county in this but he doesn’t have a choice. His first words were, “I hope you don’t hold this against me, Tim.”

The Leslie Family has been forced to stay with friends as they have not felt safe on their own land.

The family is seeking funds to assist them as they move forward.
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Amy Kay Shafer
Cedartown, GA

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