The Augusta Commission spent more than an hour Tuesday evening hearing both sides in a debate over whether Woodlawn United Methodist should open a child care center in the Walton Way church's educational building.
The commission eventually approved the child care center over the objections of its attorney and planning director, along with a number of opposed Summerville residents.
The decision pitted displaced University Hospital day care personnel against nearby Summerville residents. Woodlawn is immediately adjacent to the residences of Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles and Georgia Health Sciences University President Ricardo Azziz.
Although the planning commission last week recommended granting a special exception for the child care center, Planning Director George Patty told Augusta commissioners Tuesday that they'd made a mistake in allowing Woodlawn to apply to open a parochial or private school.
"We didn't pick it up," Patty said. "What they've described is a day care."
Arguing on behalf of Woodlawn neighbor Harris Clay and Summerville residents, attorney Jack Long detailed the Summerville neighborhood's land use plan, adopted by the commission, which prohibits spot zonings for commercial or professional uses, and presented documents showing Woodlawn was being transferred ownership of University Hospital's for-profit child care center. "What you're saying is any church can move a commercial enterprise into their church and operate as a moneymaking position under the fact that they are the church," Long said.
Representing Woodlawn, attorney Ed Enoch said that along Walton Way from Woodlawn at Milledge Road to First Baptist Church, there were 10 churches providing child care.
The child care center "is a school because it educates children," Enoch said, and it was "not going to change the character of this neighborhood."
Woodlawn's pastor said the church had learned of University shutting down its child care and offered to take over caring for its approximately 100 children. The move will save the jobs of people who have worked for University for as long as 40 years, he said.
Recommending against allowing the child care center, Deputy General Counsel Wayne Brown said it did not meet the state's criteria for being a school and shouldn't be allowed the exception a school might receive. Enoch said the city was expanding its definition of a school beyond what was actually in its ordinances.
The decision had drawn so many to the meeting, 52 for the day care and 50 against, that City Administrator Fred Russell asked attendees uninterested in the matter to step out of the commission chamber to make room.
A motion made by Commissioner J.R. Hatney to allow the facility passed with just three votes against, from Matt Aitken, Bill Lockett and Bowles.