Against the advice of their attorney and Planning and Zoning Director George Patty, Augusta commissioners voted 7-3 on Feb. 15 to allow a special zoning exception for Woodlawn United Methodist Church to open a child care center in the church, in a residential-zoned block at the busy corner of Walton Way and Milledge Road.
"It seems to me that this is a blatant violation of everything that I worked so very hard for for so very long," said Mary Louise Garren, a founding member of the neighborhood association who helped draw the historic district's boundaries. "You don't put a B1 zoning in an R1 zone."
Friday, Garren joined Summerville resident Harris Clay and the entire association in filing a lawsuit seeking to reverse the commission's decision and prevent Woodlawn from opening the child care center.
The effort is one Garren said she hasn't seen since the organization's early years, when members opposed efforts to zone spots in Summerville for commercial development nearly every month. Founded in 1976, the group helped draft a city-funded neighborhood plan, which now is incorporated into Augusta-Richmond County's comprehensive zoning ordinance and prohibits commercial development except in certain areas.
Despite opposition from the neighborhood association, the lawsuit and opposition by Augusta's Historic Preservation Commission, Woodlawn is moving forward with what it considers a Methodist ministry. Larry Wiggins, chair of the church's administrative council, said an existing playground site at the west end of the 2.6-acre lot will serve as recreation space for the children.
The plans have not damaged relations with Woodlawn's close neighbors, Church of the Good Shepherd and Episcopal Day School, Wiggins said.
Located in the same block, EDS, which educates 467 children from preschool to eighth grade, uses Woodlawn's parking lot as a holding space for carpooling parents, who line up in the 200-foot-long lot from Milledge to drop off and pick up students.
Wiggins, whose two nieces and granddaughter will attend the day care, said he doesn't think the day care will impact EDS' use of its parking lot because day care parents will not pick up their kids when EDS opens and closes.
THE METHODIST CHURCH'S desire to open a child care center began more than a year ago, when the Rev. Jim McCullough learned from a member that University Hospital was closing University Child Development Center, Wiggins said. He doesn't think what Woodlawn is doing is any different from what nearby Good Shepherd, Reid Memorial Presbyterian and numerous other churches do in caring for young children.
City Attorney Wayne Brown did, however, finding that Woodlawn's application did not meet the criteria for a school or church-based nursery that might be granted an exception to the zoning requirements. According to the state's definition, the proposal was for a day care, he said.
Ed Enoch, an attorney for Woodlawn, argued at the same packed commission meeting that Augusta was using definitions that were not in its own code, while commissioners voting to allow the special exception said they were reluctant to oppose the church.
Wiggins said Woodlawn had no plans to make money from the day care and could use any excess for missions.
No hearing on the plaintiff's request for an injunction has been held, and Wiggins said construction was ongoing to convert the educational building into a facility that can serve up to 107 children.
"They're working on the building as we speak," he said.
Woodlawn officials are seeking to transfer in the day care currently operated by University Hospital on its downtown campus. University has slated the center for closure May 20 because of the expense of upgrading the aging building.
University spokeswoman Rebecca Sylvester said all of University's playground equipment and other day care equipment has been donated to Woodlawn.
"This is a closed case as far as the hospital is concerned," Sylvester said.
Attorney Jack Long, who was raised in Summerville and lives nearby, is representing the plaintiffs. He said his chief concern is that the ruling will destroy the ability for neighborhoods to zone residential districts by allowing churches to do whatever they want just because they are churches.
Joe Neal, president of the neighborhood association and an attorney, said the association's board voted unanimously to join the lawsuit.
"Our neighborhood is like it is because we have resisted encroachments over the years," Neal said. "Just because it's a church that is asking for this, doesn't mean that the law doesn't apply for them."