Originally created 02/25/02

Saving Sand Hills



The Augusta Country Club puts a high value on the peace and tranquility of its golf course.

In the past 30 years, the exclusive club has rung up $1.35 million in property transactions, acquiring about 10 acres of land along its borders. About $320,000 of that has purchased 5.75 acres in and around Sand Hills - a decaying, historic black neighborhood off Wheeler Road.

According to the club, the Sand Hills buys provide growing room for the future and distance the course from the sights and sounds of the neighborhood.

"When you play golf, it's about beauty," General Manager Henry Marburger said, "and you don't want to be right next to a street."

The club has purchased property in predominantly white neighborhoods, too, part of which might be used for expanded parking and practice areas.

But residents of Sand Hills, where revitalization efforts are under way, say the club's needs are clashing with theirs. Those left on Allen Street, where the club has gobbled up 14 of the 21 parcels on the north side, say the country club isn't a good steward of its properties. They say what the club has done to that land has crushed any hope of restoring their neighborhood.

Typically, houses on the club's land have been torn down or left vacant, inviting illegal dumping of trash, furniture and appliances. In one case last year, the club was found to be in violation of city codes dealing with vacant lots and structure safety.

"They want to run the people out. They act like they want to keep the property values down," said George Lyons, who has rented a house near Westview Cemetery for almost 11 years. He didn't know until a reporter told him that the country club owns his house. He sends his rent to a real-estate company.

During a recent visit to Allen Street, the Richmond County Board of Assessors' chief appraiser, E.W. "Sonny" Reece, examined one of the country club's houses and said its condition likely would drive down market value if anyone nearby tried to sell.

With the country club owning so much property along Allen Street, he said, he doubted the remaining owners would ever be able to sell to anyone but the club.

Marie Peters, 73, lives sandwiched between two of the club's empty houses. She said one of the club's properties, where a one-story brick house sits, has become the street's worst dumping ground, and foliage is often left overgrown.

Last year, the back yard was filled with furniture and trash, and the front door had been removed. A peek inside the shattered windows revealed empty beer bottles.

"It's awful living here like this now," Mrs. Peters said.

The Augusta License and Inspection Department sent letters to the country club about the property in August, saying it was in violation of city codes requiring properties to be maintained in a safe and sanitary condition and forbidding unlawful dumping and overgrown grass. The club was warned about two other properties, Code Enforcement Inspector Donna Tyra said.

The club promptly boarded up the house and cleaned up the lots, the inspector said.

PROPERTIES IN THE area range in value, as listed in the Richmond County tax digest, from $1,500 to $56,300.

Club President John Overstreet said running down values is not the club's intention.

"I can assure you that's not the case," he said. As for the code violations, "It's probably just a lack of attention. I think probably what we need to do is take the houses down and have vacant lots."

The club apparently was unaware that a man was living in one of the houses it owns.

The club bought Mr. Lyons' residence in December 1998 from Frank Williams for a recorded price of $20,000. No one informed Walker Real Estate, Mr. Williams' rental company, agent William Walker said.

During the next three years, Mr. Lyons continued paying his $200 rent to Walker Real Estate, which sent $180 of that to Mr. Williams in Savannah, Mr. Walker said.

The company was not aware of the situation until The Augusta Chronicle made inquiries. Asked why only one of the country club's houses was being rented out, Mr. Overstreet said there was no such arrangement.

"I'm not aware of any rental over there," he said. "It just doesn't sound right."

Mr. Walker said he plans to have a talk with Mr. Williams. Contacted in Savannah, Mr. Williams' wife, Deborah, said that she and her husband have not received money from the Allen Street home in years and that the real-estate company must be mistaken.

Where houses once stood across from the defunct Blount Park, a dirt lot is enclosed by a barbed-wire fence and littered with large chunks of concrete. The fence is there to stop dumping, and other properties might need fences, too, Mr. Overstreet said.

For now, the club has all the property it wants to own, he said.

THE PURCHASES in Sand Hills and along Gardner Street near Cumming Grove Baptist Church, were made between 1970 and 1999. Some were done after properties had been foreclosed on or seized for unpaid taxes, the records reveal. Others involved probated estates and guardians assigned to homeowners.

The result has been an intermittent buffer zone, running along the north sides of Allen and Gardner streets and the north ends of Fleming Avenue and Weed Street on the neighborhood's side.

On the course's side, the buffer runs along the 16th fairway and behind the 11th and 15th greens. A thick row of holly trees and a chain-link fence topped with barbed wire keeps the houses out of sight and out of mind.

The country club's land-buying pattern has resembled that of Augusta National Golf Club member Boone Knox, who through Knox Development Corp. has been buying properties beside the Augusta National. Mr. Knox would not say why he's buying the land, although he has said in the past he wants to preserve its integrity and to beautify that area of town.

It's common for golf course developments to surround their links with houses or condominiums. Mr. Marburger, the general manager of Augusta Country Club, says that's not why the adjacent properties have been purchased. The nonprofit club is interested only in golf, tennis and social functions, he said.

"There's no long-range plan that speaks to that area for anything other than security purposes," Mr. Marburger said. "It's just wise to give yourself a little room for a golf course."

Between 1985 and 2001, the country club recorded $1 million in transactions for acreage along its borders in predominantly white neighborhoods, adding up to 4 acres. It has managed to acquire all but one of the houses and properties on the corner of Milledge and Overton roads in Country Club Hills.

The club also bought two vacant properties off a cul-de-sac at the end of Tupelo Drive in Willow Creek for a total of $46,000. Those properties back up to the 10th tee and aren't far from the Augusta National.

Sometimes when properties in both white and black areas were acquired, country club members acted as middlemen in the sales, buying the property and then turning it over to the club for the same price.

HOLLCO INC., owned by country club member Lucien Williams, an accountant, owns four parcels on the north side of Fitten Street that border the golf course. Mr. Williams said he has no plans to sell that land to the club.

Hollco owns several properties, vacant and occupied, in the historic section of Sand Hills. Mr. Williams bought them as rental investments, he said, but several houses have burned and become dilapidated, posing something of a white elephant that he said he would be willing to unload if the price were right.

"I don't have too many people beating down my door," he said.

So far, Mrs. Peters and her neighbors say they haven't had any offers from the country club. Some say they wouldn't sell out even if they had the chance.

"I may be old, but I can stand my ground," said Martha Tillie, 80, who lives at the end of Second Avenue behind Allen Street, just outside the country club's fence.

Tim Wilson took over as president of the Sand Hills Neighborhood Association last year and has been trying to jump-start efforts to attract new homeowners to the area and to remove dilapidated, abandoned houses.

Mr. Wilson said he can't blame the country club for what it's doing.

"If I were in their shoes, who's to say I wouldn't be doing the same thing," Mr. Wilson said. "I don't know what their objectives are. Our objective is to build a better community in Sand Hills. I just hope their objective is the same thing."

Reach Johnny Edwards at (706) 823-3225 or johnny.edwards@augustachronicle.com.