The day care that divided a neighborhood graduated its first class of preschoolers Thursday, and not one of 18 jubilant 4- and 5-year-olds had any inkling of a controversy that went all the way to court.
The arrival of the children sparked an adult outcry, however, when Woodlawn United Methodist Church decided more than a year ago to expand its ministry to take in University Child Development, which the hospital was closing.
Residents of Summerville National Historic District, including Woodlawn next-door neighbor Harris Clay and Summerville Neighborhood Association founder Mary Louise Garren, filed suit against the Augusta Commission for allowing a special zoning exception for the day care, alleging it was a business not permitted in the area of historic homes zoned residential.
The dispute prompted a war of words and accusations that residents of Summerville felt themselves superior to the children who would use the center and were only making arguments about increased traffic and historical integrity to cover their callous attitudes.
Today Woodlawn Preschool and Child Development, built in the church’s existing education building, is quietly serving 93 children from infants to 5-year-olds.
“It’s been a wonderful first year,” said the Rev. Jim McCollough, Woodlawn’s pastor. “We did have families, people who would stop by and say, ‘Wow, we didn’t realize this is what you wanted to do.’ Once the preschool was actually in place, and they saw there was no real impact, the neighbors have been great and very supportive.”
The children include those of Summerville neighbors, and the inaugural graduating class of preschoolers is headed to kindergarten at nearby Episcopal Day School and public schools in Richmond, Columbia and Aiken counties, McCullough said.
“This was our hope, to be able to provide a place where children could experience a loving environment in which they could grow emotionally, socially, intellectually, spiritually and in which they could learn through play,” he said.
Star Settles, who came from University to teach pre-K at Woodlawn, said the children’s experiences have been positive.
“We have spent our time at the Appleby Library; we have taken walks around the neighborhood,” Settles said. “We have wonderful exchanges every time we’re out in the community.”
Opponents maintain they were never against the children, only the principle of allowing a commercial business in a historic district zoned residential.
“It was always about the zoning issue,” said Garren, a grandmother of 10. “It was never about the need, or the children, or the church. That seemed to be what got lost in the emotion of the moment.”
Although the day care isn’t having much of an impact, Garren said, its approval might set a precedent damaging to the neighborhood’s historic character.
“When you allow a business into a special exception area, you have created a precedent that will be very difficult to turn down in the future,” she said.
Augusta Planning and Development Director George Patty said the city hasn’t received any similar requests.
He said the entire episode might have been avoided if the city had adopted the state’s definition of a school, which includes the type of pre-K program offered at Woodlawn.
The church applied for a special exception for a parochial school, and the city’s zoning ordinance allows church-related activities in existing churches.
Augusta Mayor Pro Tem Joe Bowles, whose historic home faces the day-care entrance, said he has observed no problems since the facility opened.
“As I expected, there’s no noticeable difference,” Bowles said.
He agreed that the neighborhood had a right to protest commercial development, but Superior Court Judge Wade Padgett’s order settled the issue.
“I think Summerville had a right to try to protect the neighborhood from a commercial zoning, but when the judge ruled it wasn’t a day care, it was a parochial school, that solved the whole issue and put it to rest.”