City Attorney Jim Wall confirmed Tuesday what residents of Augusta's historic Olde Town neighborhood already suspected: A gravel parking lot built near their homes by the Augusta Utilities Department violates local zoning ordinances.
Neighborhood residents who met Tuesday evening said that in addition to being illegally built, the parking lot is a symptom of the city's continuing disregard for their fragile community.
"The attitude the government has for this area is that the people are not important," said Annette Bush, a Greene Street resident and neighborhood association member. "The neighborhood is not important to any department you go to."
Last month, the Utilities Department erected the chain-link fence topped with barbed wire on Reynolds Street to be used for overflow parking for city pickup trucks. Last fall, the Utilities Department signed a lease to rent a nearby office building and the Reynolds Street lot for the next three to five years while employees carry out a $98 million water and sewerage bond issue approved last year.
Government property is exempt from city zoning laws, which is why water officials say they thought it was OK to place a parking lot on the property, even though it is zoned residential.
But the Olde Town lot isn't owned by the city. It's being leased from a private owner, so government exemptions don't apply, Mr. Wall said.
"It was not a situation where the city was attempting to use property of its own," he said.
And the property is zoned for multifamily residential use, which means a parking lot would have to be approved for a special exception by the Department of Planning and Zoning.
Water and sewer officials won't have permission to park city vehicles on the lot until they get OK to do so from the Richmond County Planning Commission, likely sometime next month. If approved by the planning board, the zoning matter will go before Augusta commissioners at their first meeting in July.
Planning officials attribute the confusion over the parking lot, in part, to a change in zoning on the property more than 20 years ago.
Until 1980, the Reynolds Street property was approved for commercial use. But as part of a blanket rezoning effort requested by Olde Town residents, the lot was changed from commercial to multi-family residential.
But if the property goes before the commission, the prior commercial zoning could make things more complicated, said Bob Austin, zoning and development administrator for the planning commission.
If the lot has been used continuously for two years as a parking lot, zoning ordinances would permit it to be grandfathered into compliance. If the parking signs were simply left up after the zoning changed and the lot was never used for parking, however, it wouldn't necessarily fall under the "continuous compliance" grandfathering rule.
"This is just another complicated fact," Mr. Austin said.
Neighborhood association President Bill Mundell said his group's fight to rid the subdivision of prostitution, open container drinking and dilapidated homes is difficult enough without having to fight the city, too.
"It's a sad state of affairs that this is such an old city and that eyesores continue to spoil downtown," Mr. Mundell said. "It's going to really ruin this neighborhood."
Reach Heidi Coryell at (706) 823-3215.