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Raising the bar

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Raising the bar

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March 14, 2008

The industrial presence is undeniable at the Newtown Florist Club's headquarters. Loud beeping warns of large trucks backing up, and there's a constant sound of metal crunching at a nearby junkyard. Down the street, a dog food mill looms over DeSota Park. Neighbors have complained of unpleasant odors and pervasive dust. But the Newtown Florist Club isn't located in an industrial park-it's based in a small house in a Gainesville community called Newtown.

This is why seven UGA law students drove to Gainesville in December to meet with NFC, an environmental activist group. They were enrolled in fall semester's Land Use Clinic, a program that gives law students practical experience in applying legal tools and strategies to preserve natural resources and promote smart growth. NFC is one of the clinic's ongoing clients.

"The students had finished their hours and were on winter break, but they came out of the goodness of their heart," said Jamie Baker Roskie, managing attorney for the Land Use Clinic. "They wanted to close the loop."

The group went to Newtown to meet with NFC President Faye Bush and present the culmination of their efforts, a document that by law student Jim Hawhee's estimate represented 700 hours of work.

Newtown was built on a landfill in 1936 in the aftermath of a tornado and gradually was surrounded by industrial development. The Newtown Florist Club, founded in the 1950s, began by buying flowers for community funerals but in the 1990s began investigating disproportionate rates of neighborhood illness.

During fall the Land Use Clinic students focused their efforts on air-related nuisances like noise, odor and smoke, spending long hours researching local regulations. Much of the industry in the Newtown area operates under older, less stringent permits due to grandfather clauses.

"It's a good starting point," law student Darren Rowles said, "but it's a complicated process."

This spring the Land Use Clinic continues its work with NFC, taking the recommendations outlined during fall to the city through a neighborhood planning process. And along the way, Roskie's new team is learning the intricacies of land-use law and also how to work with clients.

"They enjoy it because it gives them real-world experience," she said. "They learn what lawyering is, which is problem solving."