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April 02, 2007
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'Grow houses' may soon be on the market

For sale: County must decide what to do with the residences seized in marijuana busts.
 
GEORGE CHIDI
The Atlanta Journal-Constitution 

ATLANTA, Ga. - The comfortable two-story house for sale on Waterstone Drive in Lawrenceville featured a lake view, two-car garage and more weed in the basement than you might find at a rap concert.

At least it did until cops busted the marijuana growing operation there a couple weeks ago. The marijuana cultivation ring --- 17 houses and counting this year in Gwinnett County alone --- have no precedent for sophistication or scale here.

And now, on top of the prosecutions and ongoing criminal investigation, Gwinnett authorities have another novel problem --- how to dispose of all the houses it expects to seize through criminal forfeiture rules.

The houses in Gwinnett have been found in middle-class subdivisions, with average home values of $200,000 to $250,000, Gwinnett District Attorney Danny Porter said.

Normally, prosecutors probably wouldn't try to seize the houses, known as marijuana "grow houses" or "grow-ops." The houses usually are rentals, and the county would have to prove that the owners knew what was happening. Prosecutors typically only have to deal with smaller-scale forfeitures of cars and cash.

But the scale and sophistication of the marijuana operation has been anything but normal.

"In some of them, the owners were involved in the illegal activity," Porter said of the properties. "In some of them, it appears that the owners are fake."

Porter's office is preparing to file forfeiture documents against the owners of the houses this week, he said. The county can't strip the mortgage lenders of their stake in the houses, but it can take the equity from the owners. The process ultimately requires the county to convict the owners of a related crime, Porter said.

Then the county will have to decide whether it wants to auction the houses or hire a real estate agent to put them into the market, Porter said.

Realtors would be required to tell buyers that the house had been used as a marijuana factory, said Bob Hamilton, chief executive officer of the Georgia Association of Realtors.

"Realtors have a code of ethics," Hamilton said. "If you have firsthand knowledge, you have to disclose any adverse condition."

In the past, the county has negotiated a deal with mortgage lenders to rid itself of seized property, Porter said. The houses may fall into foreclosure in the process, he said.

Meanwhile, the properties are locked up and empty. Crates of eggs remain out on the kitchen counters at the grow house on Friars Gate Drive in Lawrenceville, as though the owners had just left. The lawn looks unmowed at another grow house on Waterstone Drive, a few miles away.

Houses sell for around $250,000 in the subdivision, said Terrence Thomas, a neighbor on Waterstone Drive. He noticed a "For sale by owner" sign in the front yard of the house a few months back. A friend of Thomas' called to see what the owners were asking, he said.

"They had a $350,000 price on it," Thomas said incredulously.

The county is unlikely to get anything like that much for the property. County administrators will probably either hire a real estate agent to sell the properties or auction them off, Porter said. Most of the houses have very little equity for the county to seize, he said.

The county doesn't want to take ownership of the houses until it's absolutely necessary, Porter said. Doing so puts the county on the hook for upkeep and taxes, Porter said.

The county will have to arrange for the houses to be cleaned up. The basements are covered ceiling to floor in silver duct tape. The houses may need to be rewired. And marijuana grow houses occasionally have mold problems related to poor ventilation and the humid atmosphere, experts say.

The raids have been part of a metrowide investigation into a sophisticated pot cultivation ring spread across Gwinnett and north metro Atlanta. Pot farmers connected to a Florida-based group grew millions of dollars worth of high-grade marijuana. At least 70 grow-ops houses have been raided so far around Atlanta this year. The U.S. Attorney's office has joined the investigation and plans to prosecute the ring-leaders of the operation with drug trafficking.

The Fayette County Sheriff's Office Drug Task Force broke the case in February, arresting two people they say were the ringleaders, and 24 others in an operation that, back then, investigators believed involved 12 homes.

Porter said he expects to find more crime as investigators drill down into the real estate records, looking for owners.

"Other than their name on the deed, we don't have any information on [some owners]," Porter said. "No drivers licenses, nothing you would associate with an identity. ... I think underneath all the pot, we're going to find a bunch of mortgage fraud. I think they were destined for foreclosure."

BY THE NUMBERS

17: Houses in Gwinnett County raided for pot farms this year.

31: Days since the first grow house raid this year.

2,000+: Pounds of marijuana found in the houses.

$200,000-$250,000: Value of houses 


Copyright 2007 The Atlanta Journal-Constitution

Full story: 'Grow houses' may soon be on the market






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