Originally created 06/16/04

Commission blasted for delaying vote



Columbia County commissioners are used to catching heat for the decisions they make. But on Tuesday night, some received fiery words for not making one at all.

The board voted to postpone a request for temporary parking at an Evans restaurant until a June 29 meeting, when the full five-member board is expected to be in attendance.

Jeri Whitworth, an Evans resident and leader of a coalition of Columbia County residents who follow county zoning changes, directed her harshest words for commission Chairman Ron Cross, who she said told her the issue was postponed because Commissioner Tom Mercer was on vacation and unable to attend the meeting.

"I told you it was unfair because there would be a quorum," she told Mr. Cross. "Mr. Mercer knows when the commission meetings are held, and he chose to go on vacation, which means to me he gave up his right to vote on any issue willingly and voluntarily.

"As chair, you do have the legal power to set the agenda, but to me it is unethical for you to do so in a way that provides the number of votes to get what you want."

Last month, the board voted 3-2 to help Fatz Cafe get a 90-day permit for unpaved parking at its North Belair Road location, which officially opened in April. With a packed lot, the popular restaurant reported that patrons have had to park on a nearby side street or walk across the traffic on North Belair Road.

Citing the belief that the new restaurant's business will eventually decrease, representatives asked the county to allow a variance for the temporary lot even though the county does not have a law allowing unpaved parking at new businesses.

The request went through review by the county's planning department and Planning Commission, which both decided not to support the variance.

Bob Newkirk, the Planning Commission's vice chairman, said he voted against the request because he did not feel the restaurant proved it was facing a strong hardship.

"The planning and zoning committee very rarely grants hardships variances," he said. "We want permanent solutions."

But the county commission can override those recommendations.

Mr. Cross said he has been surprised at the reaction the issue has created.

"I don't know what the huge controversy is here," he said. "I'll admit when this came up, I didn't think it was a real big item, and for some people, it apparently is.

"We will air it out on that date (June 29) and give everybody time to have their say."

Reach Vicky Eckenrode at 868-1222, ext. 115, or vicky.eckenrode@augustachronicle.com.