By Walter GeigerIts legal battle to relocate over 100 graves from the historic Wadsworth-Clayton Cemetery, which now appears almost certainly doomed, has cost the City of Barnesville $92,610.25 in legal fees, according to an analysis of records obtained by The Herald Gazette following an open records request.The battle dates back to July 13, 2017 when the county commission voted 3-2 to grant the city a grave relocation permit in order to spur industrial growth. Descendants filed for relief in Fulton County superior court, arguing the issue should have gone before a Lamar superior court judge, and they prevailed.That led to arguments before Judge Tommy Wilson in Lamar superior court and his ultimate denial of the permit which was upheld by the Georgia court of appeals on June 18.Two law firms were retained by the city to litigate the matter. Haygood, Lynch, Harris, Melton & Watson of Forsyth was the lead firm on the case. Bobby Melton of that firm did all the city’s work on the case. According to a review of billing records, Melton’s fee is $175 per hour.The city paid Haygood, Lynch, Harris, Melton & Watson $5,697.09 in legal fees with regard to the cemetery case in 2017. That amount rose to $19,532.88 in 2018 when the battle grew more heated. The firm’s billing to the city for 2019 has been $2,311.10. The firm netted 27,541.07 in fighting the Wadsworth-Clayton descendants, the records indicate.As the legal fight grew more complex, the city retained the high-powered firm of Troutman-Sanders, founded in part by former Georgia governor Carl Sanders. The lead attorney from the firm on the cemetery case has been William M. Droze who gets over $700 per hour. Assistants Kate Warihay and Maggie Sparks also worked on the case for Troutman-Sanders at rates of $350-$395 per hour.The city paid Troutman-Sanders $37,595.65 in 2018 and $27,473.53 thus far in 2019, for a total of $65,069.18.The cemetery is situated near the middle of a large tract of land known as the Meadow Railway industrial site. It adjoins the current industrial park. The city has or had a prospect for the site which prompted the grave removal effort. It is likely the prospect also invested funds in the legal battle but private companies do not have to specifically disclose such information.Rail access makes the site valuable for industrial development though the roadway system in the area is not ideal. It appears the city will now have to negotiate with descendants if it wants to remove the graves.If the cemetery remains in its present location, the site is still marketable, according to Kathy Oxford, executive director of the industrial development authority.’There is no perfect piece of property or building to market in a community. There are challenges at every turn as any economic developer or property developer can attest. We do the best with what we have and can afford to attract and retain businesses and jobs. We will continue to do so with the properties we have that are ready for development. We appreciate the support of the City of Barnesville in our economic development efforts and whatever the city chooses to do going forward with this property is their decision. Our belief is that something can be worked out for the benefit of the community,’ Oxford said.
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