The usually peaceful Shoal Creek Farms community has split over the entrance of, coincidentally, a farm.
The neighborhood’s Homeowners Association is at odds with family-owned Diamond Hill Farm over its presence in the neighborhood. Residents are breaking into factions as the legal battle ramps up. There are those who support the farm, those who back the HOA and those who just want the dispute to be over.
A controversial move
The subdivision outside of the State Route 10 Loop has a diversity of homes, ranging from pink stucco houses to Victorian-style two-stories. Some yards are well-manicured, others hold small gardens and a few have the overgrown look of neglect. There’s a small pond and an open field with horses tucked away at the end of a cul-de-sac.
Even though it’s a well-populated neighborhood, most of the homes sit on wooded, multi-acre lots.
However, the most striking sight upon entering the community, just behind the Shoal Creek Farms entrance on the right, is a sprawling field with sunflowers and rows of fruits and vegetables that have yet to sprout. A shed and a covered garage also lie at the edge of the property.
Behind the field sits a simple single-family residence, the home of the Dodd family, who cultivates the farm. The Dodds own and run Diamond Hill Farm. Carter Dodd, a father of two, is the president of the Athens Farmers Market board of directors. The family also helped form the Collective Harvest Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) program.
At Diamond Hill, fruits and vegetables such as strawberries, garlic, onions, lettuce and carrots, are grown.
Carter Dodd and his wife, Shelley, previously lived on a 1.5 acre lot in Hull and decided that both their farm and their family needed to move to a larger space. In September 2018, the Dodds closed on the 9-acre property in Shoal Creek Farms, moving their farming operation and their twin toddlers to the neighborhood.
The Dodds declined to comment on this story at the advice of their lawyers.
Good fences make good neighbors
Shoal Creek Farms is governed by a Homeowners Association, which according to its website serves as a resource to the neighborhood’s approximately 70 households.
The HOA’s board, made up of five people who live in the community, also issues citations to those violating the covenants, by-laws and regulations of the HOA and approves or denies proposals for properties in the neighborhood.
According to the minutes from an HOA meeting in October 2018, the Dodds presented their farm proposal to the board in July 2018 and waited on an answer before buying the property. Shortly after, they requested and received permission to build an 8-foot deer fence to protect their plants from being destroyed.
That August, they claim to have received written approval from the board’s former president for the farm, and only then proceed with purchasing the lot in Shoal Creek Farms.
According to a February 2019 revision of the August 2018 minutes, prior president of the board, Jacquie Houston, stated that the board only agreed to work on the proposal with the Dodds, rather than approving the farm outright.
The HOA held its annual board elections in October 2018, replacing the previous group that had approved Diamond Hill Farm with a 4 to 1 vote for the farm.
After the Dodds moved in that fall, things quickly became complicated.
When Carter Dodd attended a board meeting in November to present the farm’s proposal for hoop houses — structures that protect crops from frosting in colder months — the family felt it was immediately “clear” that the new board felt less-than-happy about the farm’s presence in Shoal Creek Farms.
“The aesthetics of [the farm] do not suit the neighborhood,” said Cecil Wimbs, a longtime community member and former board president.
The Dodds stated that they didn’t hear anything else until mid-January of this year, when the president of the board resigned and Sharyn Dickerson, the new city administrator of Watkinsville, was appointed as a replacement. Dickerson quickly held an informal neighborhood meeting, where she spoke about the situation with Diamond Hill Farm in a way the Dodds characterize as “misleading and untrue,” it says on the family’s GoFundMe page.
Three months later, the Dodds had yet to hear back about their hoop house proposal, nor had the board complied with the vote from the special meeting.
In April 2019, the Dodds’ suspicions about the board’s disapproval were confirmed when they received a cease-and-desist letter from the HOA’s lawyer saying the prior approval for the farm had been withdrawn and asking them to stop illegal actions permanently.
“I don’t know what [Dickerson’s] problem is,” said Rudy Chimo, a neighbor of the Dodds. “[The board members] have not been forthcoming with the community about what is going on … They have closed off all transparency.”
When The Red & Black reached out to Dickerson for comment, she declined per the advice of the HOA’s lawyer. The board’s current legal representation could not be reached and, as of press time, board members Gary Adcox and Ronald Sims had not responded to requests for comment.
The damage done
Outside of the board members, the Dodds’ have received support from many in the community.
Following public awareness of the family’s situation, supporters in the neighborhood organized a special meeting on Feb. 18, where residents voted in favor of the board ending its legal battle against the Dodds. According to the minutes from the meeting on the HOA’s website, there were 37 “yes” votes and 29 “no” votes.
After receiving the letter in April, the Dodds set up a GoFundMe with a $50,000 goal to cover legal fees. As of press time, they have received a little less than $40,000.
On the page, the Dodds say that they are “heartbroken and devastated” by the situation and that it has been a “extremely stressful and difficult time” for the family.
Moving isn’t an option for them right now, either. They invested most of what they had to purchase the properties in Shoal Creek Farms, valued at $366,500, according to tax records. Moving would bankrupt them, according to their GoFundMe.
“The Dodds are very, very good people,” said Chimo, who met the family in January. “I think they have an outstanding reputation in the neighborhood.”
In an update in mid-June, the Dodds stated that they filed a civil lawsuit against the HOA for withdrawing the farm’s approval and are seeking damages for their losses. They say they have lost an estimated $50,000 from being unable to properly operate the farm and have spent around $25,000 in legal fees fighting the board. In response, the HOA has filed a countersuit.
The Dodds’ lawyer, Robert S. Huestis of Blasingame, Burch, Garrard & Ashley, P.C., called the situation “increasingly contentious” in an email to The Red & Black.
The one thing that seems to be shared by the neighborhood, regardless of who remains on the fence or has picked a side, is a sense of shock that the dispute has escalated to the point of legal action.
Even long-time residents can’t remember a time the HOA and residents have had an issue of this magnitude.
“I don’t think anyone can win in this situation,” Chimo said.
At this point, it is unclear as to whether or not the two parties will come to a settlement or if this farm versus board battle will make its way to a courtroom.