Originally created 09/04/01

City officials debate saving historic area



Whether the rows of shotgun-style homes and crumbling structures dominating the Bethlehem Historic District are actually historic has been in dispute since the neighborhood first was given the designation.

The homes, some of which date back to the 1800s, are certainly old enough. And though some have argued otherwise, historians say the architecture is significant enough.

But city officials and Bethlehem homeowners say the amount of money it would take to save the homes, many of which are partially burned down or collapsing, far exceeds the value of the structures.

"The economics don't support the preservation," Mayor Bob Young said.

Many say money is what's missing from Bethlehem - unlike the city's other historic neighborhoods, including Summerville and downtown. It appears that a lack of money has led to the lack of a valid ordinance to govern the area's historic properties.

Today, commissioners will consider approving the demolition of an abandoned grocery store in Bethlehem on Old Savannah Road. Historic preservation commissioners denied the request for demolition earlier this year; the Augusta Commission has the authority to overrule that denial, which they are expected to do.

But still to be resolved is the validity of the historic preservation ordinance that governs Bethlehem.

Records on file at the city attorney's office show a resolution to designate the Bethlehem neighborhood as historic was adopted by the Augusta City Council on April 5, 1993. Although council members referred to the resolution as an ordinance, it was never adopted as such, nor was it signed by then-Mayor Charles DeVaney or assigned an ordinance number.

If challenged in court, the ordinance might not hold up, said Jim Wall, a city attorney.

The same thing happened with the Summerville historic ordinance, but in 1999 commissioners, as part of a legal settlement, ratified and confirmed it as a historic district. Although commissioners knew the same problems applied in Bethlehem, there was concern that holding the urban neighborhood to the same historic standards would prevent needed demolitions and revitalization.

At an Aug. 26, 1999, public hearing, most of the 75 residents who attended said the historic ordinance should be modified or abolished to allow the abandoned houses - havens for drug and other criminal activity - to be torn down.

Commissioners have expressed agreement with that sentiment.

Erick Montgomery, the executive director of Historic Augusta Inc., said the city should protect its local ordinance because it makes it easier to obtain state and federal funds for preservation efforts.

"I don't see it making anything easier for their scheme of trying to tear everything down if they decommission it," Mr. Montgomery said.

Although commissioners complain the historic preservation is overzealous, preservation commissioners contend they're trying to save only those structures that are salvageable. Records on file in the city's office of planning and zoning show the preservation commission approved 71 percent of requested demolitions in Bethlehem during the past three years.

"The historic preservation commission has, for several years, realized that much of Bethlehem has been lost from neglect," Chairman Sonny Pittman said. "Some of these pieces of property are of such a condition now, and have been allowed to deteriorate so much, that they can't be saved."

But some commissioners agree that not all the historic homes in the Bethlehem area are beyond saving.

"I'm not so blind that I can't see there's some historic structures we need to completely redo," said Commissioner Marion Williams, whose district includes Bethlehem. "But when we redo them, it's going to be costly. The people who live in my district have to deal with shotgun houses and dilapidated apartments every day. These people need to know there's a better life."

Reach Heidi Coryell Williams at (706) 823-3215.