The landlord of a Macon apartment complex that made news when tenants were forcibly evicted when property managers let the water get cut off may have his day in court and in front of a jury.
Attorneys for Crystal Lake Apartments owner Steve Firestone asked for a jury trial Friday during Firestone’s second appearance in Macon-Bibb County Municipal Court. Firestone could have faced as much as 180 days in jail over the single building code violation brought before that court.
Attorney Travis Griffin of Macon made the request to Municipal Court Judge Robert Faulkner to bind the case over to a higher court. Griffin argued that civil court was not the proper venue for the Bibb County government to pursue what Griffin described as a “quasi-criminal matter.”
“The city has the posture that they want to throw the owner of a company that owns an apartment complex in jail for code violations from that apartment complex,” Griffin said in a press conference after the court proceedings.
Firestone and Crystal Lake Holdings LLC had accrued pages of building code violations at the apartments over the last year. Unsafe staircases, a non-functioning elevator plus the lack of water service were what prompted Bibb County officials to evacuate the high rise building at Crystal Lake in February, but Griffin said that exactly what criminal activity the county is claiming may have led to that constructive eviction is not clear.
“All we had is a notice of code violations saying there could be criminal penalties,” Griffin said. “When you're dealing with someone's liberty, due process demands that there is a more stringent procedure in putting someone on notice as to what they are defending against.”
Griffin said a trial before a jury of Firestone's peers was the place to clear that up.
Water service was cut at Crystal Lake because Firestone was over $40,000 in arrears to the local water utility, the Macon Water Authority. Atlanta attorney Todd Robinson has represented Firestone and Crystal Lake Holdings LLC even long before Firestone’s latest trouble. Robinson blamed the debt to the water utility on tenants who he claimed were themselves in arrears in rent payments. Robinson also said he had talked to tenants who were up to date on their rent.
“I've told them exactly what to do,” Robinson said. “They could call the office to get a refund for any rent that was paid in February.”
Robinson could not put a dollar figure on how much money tenants had gotten back.
"I'm a lawyer. I don't manage the property," Robinson said.
The property is also under new management after being placed into receivership by Bibb County Superior Court earlier in the week. Angela Lunde, area representative with the new managers Strategic Management Partners, would not comment Friday on whether or not tenants had received refunds on rent.
Until Bibb County State Court receives and reviews information from municipal proceedings, it is unclear what criminal charges landlord Steve Firestone may face.