Jury awards $425,000 in damages to Bartow couple

A two-day legal slugfest at the Frank Moore Judicial Center ended in victory for a Bartow County couple.

Victor and Margaret Halbgewachs were notified in April 2016 that their property on the southwest corner of Georgia Highway 113 and Old Alabama Road had been condemned by the Georgia Department of Transportation as part of a runway extension for the Cartersville-Bartow County Airport.

“They said they needed to lower the road by 18 feet so it would be flush with the runway expansion,” Margaret Halbgewachs said. “They offered us $27,500 in compensation.”

But the lowered roadway would mean a 19 percent slope, rendering their driveway impassible for the trucks and equipment the Halbgewachs use in their beekeeping business, “Makin’ Honey.”

The Halbgewachs contacted Cartersville attorneys Brandon Bowen and Bobby Walker of the Jenkins & Bowen law firm and a lawsuit was filed against the GDOT.

They contended that although the GDOT wanted to pay them for a fraction of their land — .044 acres — the resulting alterations to that small plot would render the rest of the property unuseable due to the steep slope.

“One of our trucks pulling a trailer with a Bobcat on it would never be able to get up the drive,” Victor Halbgewachs said. “And trying to enter the highway from a steep drive like that is very dangerous.”

After retiring from the Georgia Department of Agriculture, Victor Halbgewachs turned to migratory beekeeping, something his family had done for generations. As a child, he had traveled with his father, splitting the year — Texas in the winter and Nebraska in the summer — and tending more than 5,000 hives in Nebraska, South Dakota, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia.

The couple made beekeeping their primary income, supplying stores in Bartow, Paulding and Floyd counties. But the condemnation threatened to place much of their income in serious jeopardy.

From the beginning of the trial, GDOT attorney Robert Dyer insisted that Greg Malcolm, the department’s appraiser, had arrived at a reasonable offer.

But on cross-examination, Bowen exposed weaknesses in Malcolm’s work, asking why he chose to base his appraisals on comparable sales that were much further away from the Halbgewach’s property instead of choosing sales that were much closer and valued much higher.

There was also the question of the very steep slope caused by the digging out of the yard.

“Did you figure the impact of the slope of the driveway?” Bowen asked. “Did you figure the consequential damage due to the slope?”

The appraiser replied that he had not.

You didn’t figure that in your analysis?” Bowen asked. “Did you talk to the DOT? Did you know that GDOT guidelines say that 10 percent is the maximum slope allowed?”

Malcolm shook his head no.

“Have you looked at this easement?” Bowen continued. “In the second to last sentence, what does it say?”

“An easement for dirt to be removed from the property,” Malcolm read.

“Wouldn’t that affect the value of the property?” Bowen asked. “Isn’t that something that should be noted in your report?”

Bowen and Walker continued to pick apart the state’s claim from several more witnesses that the GDOT offered as experts.

Still, the attorneys and the Halbgewachs said they were worried as the first day of the trial ended.

Wednesday involved more examination and cross-examination of other appraisers and real estate brokers, and Margaret Halbgewachs, who asked the jury to carefully consider their verdict.

In the closing arguments, GDOT attorney Dyer reminded the jury that they should only consider the facts and not entertain any feelings of sympathy for the Halbgewachs.

Bowen reminded the jury of the holes he found in the state’s arguments and urged them to consider the Halbgewachs’ situation when deliberating.

“Imagine if you have this property,” he said. “You get sued and have it taken from you. You have to come to court, you have to hire an engineer, an appraiser, a lawyer and fight it for two years just to get what you think is fair. And all we’re asking you to do is what is fair.”

After nearly an hour of deliberation, the jury arrived at a verdict — $425,000 for the Halbgewachs.

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