City of Atlanta v. Watson
Cite as: 267 Ga. 185, 475 S.E.2d 896



No. S96G0600

Sept. 23, 1996
Reconsideration Denied Oct. 17, 1996


Clifford E. Hardwick, IV, City Attorney, Charles George Hicks, Asst. City Attorney, City of Atlanta Department of Law, Atlanta, for appellant.

Richard N. Hubert, David P. Thatcher, Chamberlain, Hrdlicka, White, Williams & Martin, Atlanta, for appellees.

F. Kennedy Hall, Hall, Bloch, Garland & Meyer, Macon, for Amicus Curiae.

SEARS, Justice.

We granted certiorari in this case in order to (1) determine whether the City of Atlanta violated the equal protection rights of owners of multi-family residences near Hartsfield International Airport, when as part of its Airport Noise Abatement Program, the City purchased only single-family residences from their owners, and (2) consider two evidentiary rulings made by the Court of Appeals. We find that under the circumstances of this case, the City's purchase of single-family residences to the exclusion of their multi-family counterparts bears a rational relationship to a legitimate government interest, and therefore did not violate the equal protection rights of the owners of multi-family residences. We also find that the Court of Appeals erred in remanding to the trial court the issue of whether a federal statute prohibiting the recovery of damages for airport noise (49 U.S.C. 47506) is applicable to this matter. We also disagree with the Court of Appeals' ruling that the trial court erred by excluding one of Appellees' exhibits pursuant to the Aviation Noise Abatement Act (49 App.U.S.C. 2106). Therefore, we reverse.

The Appellant City of Atlanta ("the City") owns and operates Hartsfield International Airport ("Hartsfield"). The Appellees are the owners of non- owner occupied, multi-family residences located in the City of College Park, Georgia, in close proximity to Hartsfield. Approximately twenty-five years ago, the City opted to participate in a federal noise abatement program designed for airports that, like Hartsfield, receive federal funding. One of the stated goals of the noise abatement program is to reduce existing land uses that are incompatible with airport noise and to prevent the introduction of future incompatible land uses around airports. [FN 1] The noise abatement program also is concerned with identifying and developing alternative land uses that are compatible with airport noise levels. [FN 2]

[FN 1] 49 U.S.C. 47504(b)(1)(B).

[FN 2] 49 U.S.C. 47502(3).

In order to determine the extent to which existing land uses around Hartsfield were incompatible with noise generated by the airport, the City conducted a noise exposure study, which resulted in the development and implementation of a land use compatibility plan, known as the City's Aircraft Noise Exposure Maps & Noise Compatibility Program ("the Program"), intended to reduce incompatible land uses around Hartsfield. As part of the Program's initial phases, the City purchased single-family residences located near Hartsfield. The Program, in its initial phases, did not provide for the City's purchase of similarly situated multi-family residences, such as those owned by Appellees. When the City refused to purchase Appellees' properties, Appellees filed suit, claiming inverse condemnation, nuisance, equal protection violations and violations of their rights under 42 U.S.C. 1983.

Before trial, the Appellees' section 1983 claims were dismissed by the trial court on the City's motion, and summary judgment was granted in favor of the City on the Appellees' equal protection claims. Thereafter, in April 1994, the claims of inverse condemnation and nuisance were tried before a jury. At the conclusion of Appellees' evidence, the trial court directed a verdict in favor of the City on the nuisance claim. After the jury was unable to reach a verdict on the remaining inverse condemnation claim, a mistrial was declared. After a second trial, the jury returned a verdict in favor of the City. Appellees' subsequent motions for new trial and judgment notwithstanding the verdict were denied.

The Court of Appeals reversed the trial court's grant of summary judgment to the City on Appellees' equal protection claim, and concluded that the City's decision initially to purchase only single-family residences as part of its Program did not bear a rational relationship to the legitimate purpose of reducing land uses around Hartsfield that are not compatible with the noise generated by the airport. [FN 3] In so doing, the appellate court invalidated the distinction drawn by the City between single and multi-family residences by focusing almost exclusively on the City's argument that its study established that multi-family residences are less affected and more compatible with noise generated by the airport than are single-family homes. Rejecting that argument, the Court of Appeals reasoned that the City had drawn an arbitrary distinction between two identical groups -- both of which are residences located in the same vicinity to the airport--with no objective basis for doing so, and remanded the equal protection issue to the trial court. The Court of Appeals also remanded the issue of whether the trial court had correctly charged the jury on a federal statute (49 U.S.C. 47506) without first determining whether it was applicable to the facts of this matter, and ruled that a different federal statute (49 App.U.S.C. 2106) did not preclude admission of the Appellees' exhibit showing land uses compatible with airport noise.

[FN 3] Watson v. City of Atlanta, 219 Ga.App. 704, 466 S.E.2d 229 (1995).
1. The Georgia Constitution states that a paramount duty of government shall be to ensure the protection of persons and property, and that in discharging that duty, "[n]o person shall be denied equal protection of the laws." [FN 4] The Georgia equal protection clause, which is construed to be consistent with its federal counterpart, requires that the State treat similarly situated individuals in a similar manner. [FN 5] A successful equal protection challenge generally requires a showing that state action was undertaken with an unreasonable purpose or was arbitrary and capricious. [FN 6] However, under our equal protection clause, State legislative classification "is permitted when the classification is based on rational distinctions and ... bears a direct and real relation to the [legitimate] object or purpose of the legislation." [FN 7]
[FN 4] Ga. Const. (1983), Art. I, Sec. I, Para. II.

[FN 5] Chatterton v. Dutton, 223 Ga. 243, 245, 154 S.E.2d 213 (1967); see Yick Wo v. Hopkins, 118 U.S. 356, 373-74, 6 S.Ct. 1064, 1072-73, 30 L.Ed. 220 (1886); Barge-Wagener Construction Co. v. Morales, 263 Ga. 190, 192, 429 S.E.2d 671 (1993).

[FN 6] See Washington v. Davis, 426 U.S. 229, 239-42, 96 S.Ct. 2040, 2047-49,48 L.Ed.2d 597 (1976).

[FN 7] Home Materials, Inc. v. Auto Owners Ins. Co., 250 Ga. 599, 600, 300 S.E.2d 139 (1983); see State Farm Mut. Auto. Ins. Co. v. Five Transportation Co., 246 Ga. 447, 271 S.E.2d 844 (1980).

If the State's classification operates to the disadvantage of a suspect class or impedes the exercise of a fundamental right, it is tested under a standard of strict judicial scrutiny. [FN 8] We agree with the Court of Appeals, however, that because there is no showing that the classification in this appeal involves either a suspect class or the exercise of a fundamental right, we must examine it under the lesser "rational basis" test and determine only whether it bears a reasonable relationship to a legitimate purpose of government. [FN 9] The rational basis test requires that the classification drawn by the legislation be reasonable and not arbitrary, and rest upon some ground of difference having a fair and rational relationship to the legislation's objective, so that all similarly situated persons are treated alike. [FN 10]
[FN 8] Ambles v. State, 259 Ga. 406, 407, 383 S.E.2d 555 (1989).

[FN 9] Bowman v. Knight, 263 Ga. 222, 223, 430 S.E.2d 582 (1993). See McDaniel v. Thomas, 248 Ga. 632, 637-38, 285 S.E.2d 156 (1981); Watson, 219 Ga.App. at 706, 466 S.E.2d 229.

[FN 10] Allrid v. Emory University, 249 Ga. 35, 38, 285 S.E.2d 521 (1982).

"'"If [it is found that] the legislative purpose is legitimate and the classification drawn has some reasonable relation to furthering that purpose, the classification passes [constitutional] muster." ' " [FN 11] A classification will be upheld in the face of an equal protection challenge so long as, "under any conceivable set of facts, [it] bears a rational relationship to a legitimate end of government not prohibited by the Constitution." [FN 12] In this regard, the party who challenges legislation on equal protection grounds bears the burden of establishing that " 'the legislative facts on which the classification is apparently based could not reasonably be conceived to be true by the government decisionmaker.'" [FN 13]
[FN 11] Smith v. Cobb County-Kennestone Hosp. Auth., 262 Ga. 566, 570, 423 S.E.2d 235 (1992).

[FN 12] Craven v. Lowndes County Hosp. Auth., 263 Ga. 657, 659, 437 S.E.2d 308 (1993).

[FN 13] Id.

Bearing these principles in mind, we turn to this matter. As noted, the Court of Appeals' conclusion that the City had violated the equal protection rights of owners of multi-family residences was based upon its rejection of the City's claim that its study showed that such residences are more compatible with airport noise than are single-family residences. Pretermitting the propriety of this conclusion, we find that the Court of Appeals erred by ending its inquiry at this point, without examining the other justifications supported by the record in defense of the City's classification between single and multi-family residences. [FN 14] As explained below, our review of the record as a whole shows that the City's initial purchase under the Program of only single-family homes was rationally related to the legitimate governmental purposes of reducing land usage incompatible with airport noise in a sound fiscal manner while simultaneously avoiding the virtual elimination of the City of College Park's residential basis. Furthermore, in light of the evidence of record concerning the occupancy rates of multi-family residences in College Park, it appears that the City's decision initially to purchase only single-family homes was reasonable and not arbitrary.
[FN 14] See note 12 supra, and accompanying text.
The record shows that the City's Program estimated that the relocation of all families living within non-compatible airport noise level areas (an estimated 81,183 people, residing in 16,000 single-family residences and 8,000 apartment complexes), would cost the City in excess of $900 million, as measured in 1984. [FN 15] At the time that Appellees filed their lawsuit, the City only had sufficient funds to enable it to purchase single-family homes that were non-compatible with the airport noise. Thus, the decision was made that, in the initial phase of the Program, only owner occupied, single-family residences would be purchased, although the Program provided that thereafter, the purchase of other types of residences located in unacceptable airport noise areas would be considered. [FN16] This decision appears to have been reasonable, given that the City's study revealed that even though they were affected by airport noise, non-owner occupied multi-family residences remained 96-98% occupied. This would indicate that Appellees' ownership interest in these multi-family residences, while possibly feeling some impact from the airport noise, could probably withstand exclusion from the Program's initial phase without suffering a corresponding loss of tenant occupancy.
[FN 15] Naturally, this amount increases when the time value of money is taken into consideration.

[FN 16] The Program stated:

In general, single-family residences will have first priority in the initial 6 year program in order to treat the greatest number of people most adversely affected by airport noise within the given funding considerations.

. . . . .

[Thereafter], consideration will be given to treating other noise sensitive uses such as tenant occupied ... residences.

Furthermore, even if we assume arguendo that the City had the financial resources in 1984 to have purchased all residences adversely affected by the airport noise, to have done so would have wreaked havoc on the City of College Park's residential base -- the foundation of its infrastructure, business community, and congressional districting. [FN 17] Had the City effectively relocated over 81,000 people from College Park to other communities at once, rather than in stages, there would have been no opportunity for the redevelopment of land formerly occupied by single-family residences with the establishment of businesses that are compatible with airport noise -- a stated goal of both the federal noise abatement program and the City's Program. As shown by the City's 1985 amendment to the Program, there has been an effort made to facilitate such redevelopment of land formerly occupied in College Park, and to attract new businesses that are not adversely affected by airport noise to that land, thereby ensuring to some extent that College Park retains a residential structure upon which it can survive.
[FN 17] The Program was intended in part to "minimize to the greatest extent possible the loss of the tax base and utility services as well as the disruptions to the local community."
Moreover, it bears emphasizing that the Program states that residences such as those owned by Appellees will not be purchased during its initial phase, but expressly leaves open the possibility that such residences will be purchased during a later phase of the Program. In this regard, it is obvious that Appellees were not treated by the City in the exact same manner as were owners of single-family residences. However, that fact, standing alone, does not constitute an equal protection violation in this case. [FN 18] In order to survive an equal protection challenge such as the one in this appeal, "[i]t is not necessary that the [City's] classification scheme be the perfect or the best one; nor do we focus on [its] fairness." [FN 19] In its effort to reduce land uses that are not compatible with airport noise, while simultaneously fostering other land uses that are compatible with such noise, the City may draw classifications without violating Appellees' equal protection rights so long as such classifications are reasonable and not arbitrary and have a fair and substantial relationship to the City's legitimate objectives. For the reasons explained above, we find that the classifications drawn by the City between single-family and multi-family residences bear a rational relationship to the legitimate governmental purpose of reducing land use incompatible with airport noise in a sound and responsible fiscal manner, while simultaneously avoiding the virtual elimination of College Park's residential basis and the resulting negative impact on its business community and infrastructure. Therefore, the classification drawn by the City between the two types of residences does not violate the constitutional guarantee of equal protection, and we reverse the contrary ruling by the Court of Appeals.
[FN 18] See Barge-Wagener, 263 Ga. at 192, 429 S.E.2d 671.

[FN 19] Bowman, 263 Ga. at 223, 430 S.E.2d 582.

2. Appellees argued before the Court of Appeals that the trial court had erred in charging the jury on 49 U.S.C. 47506, which provides that unless specified criteria are satisfied, no person who acquires property after 1980 in an area for which an airport noise exposure map has been submitted may recover damages for noise attributable to the airport, if the person had actual or constructive knowledge of the map's existence. As noted by the appellate court, the trial court had denied the City's claim in its motion for summary judgment that it was immune from damages for airport noise under section 47506, because questions of fact remained concerning the statute's applicability. The Court of Appeals concluded that as a matter of law, section 47506 does apply to this matter, and that the trial court's jury charge on the statute was a correct statement of the law. Nonetheless, the Court of Appeals found that the trial court erred by charging the jury on section 47506 without first resolving whether the statute applies to the facts of this matter, and remanded that issue for the trial court's determination. For the reasons explained below, we now reverse that ruling.

By its terms, the applicability of section 47506 to a state court action is a mixed question of law and fact. As a matter of law, we conclude that the Aviation Safety Noise Abatement Act of 1979 ("the Noise Abatement Act"), of which section 47506 is a part, preempts state law with regard to suits seeking redress for airport noise. [FN 20] Thus, we agree with the Court of Appeals that, as a legal matter, section 47506 applies to this case. [FN 21] Moreover, our review of the record confirms that the trial court's charge to the jury on section 47506 was a correct statement of the law.

[FN 20] See Adams v. City of Atlanta, 253 Ga. 581, 322 S.E.2d 730 (1984) ("[f]ederal law and regulations preempt local control of airspace management, air traffic control, and aircraft noise and emissions."). See also discussion in division three, infra.

[FN 21] Accordingly, we reject Appellees' argument on appeal that application of the statute in this case will unconstitutionally preempt their state claim for inverse condemnation.

Thus, the only issue remaining before the trial court was whether section 47506, when applied to the facts of this matter, precluded Appellees from recovering damages; i.e. -- (1) whether, at the time they acquired their property, Appellees had actual or constructive knowledge that an airport noise exposure map had been submitted for the region encompassing their property, and (2) whether any of the specified criteria existed that would permit Appellees to recover damages, notwithstanding their actual or constructive knowledge of the map's submission. [FN 22]
[FN 22] See 49 U.S.C. 47506.

Continued in Part Two