National's neighbors to get tax break

They turned down Masters Tournament badges and million-dollar offers to keep their homes.

Now they won't be financially punished for it anymore.

Homeowners amid the Augusta National Golf Club's grassy parking lot will get relief this year, after three years of paying taxes that doubled and tripled because of the club's land-buying.

On Monday, the Richmond County Board of Assessors unanimously approved seven applications for "transitional use covenants," which should lower taxes by thousands of dollars so long as residents promise not to sell their homes or move out for 10 years.

"That's wonderful," said Heath Drive resident Bill Garner, 59. "Like I've said before, we really have no intention of leaving unless we're forced to."

The board approved the applications on a recommendation from Chief Tax Appraiser Calvin Hicks. An eighth covenant request was denied because the homeowner lives at Berckmans Road and Wicklow Drive, well south of the National's target area in assembling its 70-acre lot.

Nearly a decade ago, straw buyers and limited liability companies began acquiring residential property west of Berckmans Road. When word got out that Augusta National was behind it, sale prices shot up, speculators moved in on the market and county property assessments -- and taxes -- skyrocketed.

The Board of Assessors denied the covenant to homeowners who applied in 2005. Among them was Herman Thacker, 75, of Stanley Drive, whose taxes that year had more than doubled, from $415 to $1,049.

Board Chairman Charles Smith said there was no physical evidence then that the neighborhood was in transition, but that has changed. The golf club used the parking lot for the first time this year.

"We ought to get the back taxes back," Mr. Thacker said, though he's not counting on it.

Mr. Garner, whose 2007 taxes of $4,180 were nearly triple what they were in 2004, said the club once offered him more than $1 million and rights to purchase four Masters badges per year in exchange for his one-acre lot. He did not want to leave the neighborhood he grew up in nor his elderly mother next door.

Taxes will likely be lowered to amounts comparable to the south side of Heath Drive, where property values weren't affected, Mr. Hicks said Monday. Those homes' 2007 taxes ranged from $475 to $1,318.

If homeowners break their covenants by leaving early, they'll face penalties and double the back taxes that they'd have paid without the exemption, Mr. Hicks said. If a homeowner dies, the covenant is dissolved.

With his tax bills lowered, Mr. Garner said his only gripe with the neighborhood will be the early morning roar of construction trucks as Augusta National continues razing homes.

"That's just part of choosing to stay here," he said.

William Hatcher, 61, of Hillside Lane, said he's content to live within the parking lot, which is an open field 51 weeks of the year.

"It looks like we're Little House in the Meadow," he said. "Everybody's happy now, I'm sure."

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