Country club in zoning trouble

The Augusta Country Club skipped a step before building its new short-game practice area near the corner of Milledge and Overton roads.

The club should have first gotten approval from the Augusta Commission because it built on residential-zoned land and a chipping and putting green for members who pay to play isn't a residential use, Augusta Planning Commission Executive Director George Patty said. The oversight was unintentional, project engineers said.

When the club sought a "special exception" from the commission last week, a group of neighboring homeowners raised concerns about flooding.

Engineers will meet with residents today in hopes of assuaging objections.

"Usually, these processes go through steps -- one, two three," Mr. Patty said. "I think what we're doing here is three, two, one."

The neighbors' questions led commissioners to put off voting on the matter until Monday's meeting. District 10 Commissioner Don Grantham argued and voted against the postponement. Mr. Grantham, a club member, sold one of eight parcels the club bought that made the practice area possible, and he said he mediated deals that paid other sellers in monthly installments and allowed them to live in their homes until they died.

Mr. Grantham said Wednesday he sees no need to recuse himself from voting on the request.

"I'm not an owner of the club," he said, "just a member through the privilege of the club inviting you to join."

Construction of the practice area started in late August and is about 90 percent complete, lacking only a decorative fence and some shrubs and trees to buffer it from the street, club General Manager Henry Marburger said. The club spent $1.3 million acquiring land to make it possible, buying a row of residential parcels between 1987 and 2006 and razing the last four houses this year.

The confusion stemmed from the golf course as a whole being zoned residential and the eight acquired lots having been absorbed, said Dennis Welch, a vice president for the club's engineering firm, Cranston Engineering Group. The 92-year-old country club predates the city's zoning ordinance and its use as a golf course was grandfathered in.

Mr. Welch said his firm submitted clearing and grading plans to the city in late July, but he didn't know the project required a zoning exception until he got a call from Zoning and Development Administrator Bob Austin. The Planning Commission recommended approval on Oct. 6.

Country Club Hills residents said they're worried the altered landscape could overburden drain pipes downhill.

If anything, Mr. Welch said, the changes have helped drainage by eliminating razed homes' driveways and rooftops, and a retention pond will be installed to catch runoff from a new parking lot.

"We want to catch it before there is a problem," Overton Road resident Janet Stulb said. "We're working with them."

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

WHAT'S NEXT?

The Augusta Planning Commission will vote on the country club's special exception request at a Monday meeting.