Will Dee Mathis and her allies be able to stop the Overlay Zoning District?
Originally posted by CityStink
November 15, 2011
By Al Gray
The author, Al M. Gray is President of Cost Recovery Works, Inc., a provider of Cost Avoidance and Cost Recovery for America’s leading companies, businesses and governments desiring Superior Returns.
Today is the day when Augusta commissioners will vote to either approve or halt a controversial proposed overlay zoning district for the Laney-Walker/Bethlehem neighborhoods in inner city Augusta. CityStink.net was the first in the media to tell you about the concerns over the overlay zoning proposal on October 6th in Urban Redevelopment or Land Grab?
Laney-Walker homeowner Dee Mathis got wind that the Augusta Planning and Zoning Department was planning to quietly approve an Overlay Zoning District for her neighborhood on October 3rd. Ms Mathis nor any of her neighbors had previously heard about this proposal and none of them were notified prior to the Oct 3rd meeting. Ms Mathis and property rights activist Mike Sheil, showed up at the meeting and challenged the legitimacy of the proposal moving forward because property owners had not been properly notified. Ms Mathis and many of her neighbors wanted more specifics about how the zoning changes would affect them and the use of their property. There were also concerns that the overlay zoning district would introduce commercial zoning into areas that are now zoned residential and impose architectural review guidelines on existing property owners. Because of the challenge by Ms Mathis and Mr Sheil, the vote by Planning and Zoning was postponed until Nov 7th.
|Dee Mathis, Laney-Walker Homeowner
The Dog and Pony Shows
In the mean time, Planning and Zoning began to notify the affected property owners by mail and a series of informational seminars were scheduled to supposedly give residents more specifics. Dee Mathis kept requesting all of the details of the proposal that would actually be voted on, but instead got mostly “vague” concepts and pretty water color sketches…. but not a lot of specifics. As you are probably aware, when dealing with Augusta government it’s always important to get the specifics in writing.
The seminars were not much more informative. Critics referred to them as being more “Dog and Pony Shows” than being informative and offering specifics. It became obvious to homeowners like Dee Mathis, that the seminars, conducted by the private developer requesting the overlay zone and The Augusta Housing Authority, were mostly propaganda sessions designed to mislead residents with pretty water color sketches that had little to do with what would actually be voted on in the application.
In fact, Dee Mathis and a group of allies found glaring inconsistencies, vague language, and an application that was essentially incomplete. How could an incomplete application be approved? Well, according to the law, it shouldn’t. But that didn’t stop the Planning and Zoning Department from giving their seal of approval to the Overlay Zoning District on November 7th, despite the objections raised by Ms Mathis and her allies. However, for the overlay zone to go into effect, it would need approval from Augusta Commissioners. And that is where we are today.
What Will Commissioners Do?
Commissioners will take up the Overlay Zoning District at today’s 5pm BOC meeting at The Marble Palace. Inside sources are telling CityStink.net that Dist 1 Commissioner Matt Aitken (who represents the bulk of the proposed Overlay Zoning District) plans to vote in favor of the OZ. Commissioner Jerry Brigham (Dist 7) has made public statements indicating that he would likely support it as well. So will this vote fall along mostly racial lines with white commissioners voting in favor of imposing an overlay zoning district in a mostly poor , and black inner-city neighborhood at the behest of a private out-of town developer? What about the “cafeteria” sometimes-leaning-libertarian Mayor Pro-tem Joe Bowles? Will he side with the property rights activists and the rule of law? Or will he fall in line and side with the private developer and approve restricting property rights and approve an incomplete application with inconsistent and vague information that would likely not withstand a legal challenge? Where do minority Commissioners Mason, Lockett, Hatney, and Johnson all stand on the Overlay Zoning District?
The Dee and Al Show
Dee Mathis will be joined by ally and property rights advocate Al Gray at today’s commission meeting. Both are on the agenda to speak before the commissioners in opposing approval of the ordinance. Ms Mathis has also been organizing her neighbors and supporters on Facebook to pack the commission chambers today at 5pm to stop the overlay zone. Al Gray is scheduled to speak first.
Property Rights Advocate, Al Gray
Mr. Gray is no stranger to these sorts of battles. He successfully challenged a similar overlay zoning district in Columbia County for the Evans Town Center area. Though not a resident of Richmond County, Mr Gray is coming out to lend his support and knowledge to Ms Mathis and the residents of Laney-Walker/Bethlehem in fighting against this proposal. For Mr Gray it boils down to the simple issue of protecting individual property rights and following the rule of law.
CityStink.net received the following press release from Al Gray regarding today’s vote:
PRESS RELEASE!!!! PRESS RELEASE!!!!:
Property rights activist and overlay zoning district veteran Al Gray has the following comment on the overlay motion coming before the Augusta Richmond County Commission Tuesday night.
The Augusta Richmond County government has been caught with its pants down so often Sheriff Strength could arrest them all for indecent exposure, yet it is poised to execute a plan initiated by a private entity that fails its own ordinance in uniformity, required notices, and completeness. This malignant plan as it is being executed is a dagger to the private property rights of every Richmond County landowner from McBean to Warren Road. Richmond County citizens are being told “trust us” yet again. They say this….”Trust our plan. We don’t know the details, but we MUST pass it to before you find out what is in it.”
When these overlays came to Columbia and Lincoln Counties, they were met with public hostility to the point that there was nearly a riot at the Columbia County Planning Commission in 2000. (Reporters at the Columbia News-Times of that day can attest to this as can Columbia County Commission Chairman Ron Cross who was seen on the front row waving his fist and being decidedly loud in defense of property rights.) The overlay ordinances had to be scaled back to meet public acceptance. The Evans Town Center Overlay was thrown out in Superior Court for lack of notification, yet many Laney Walker residents had not been notified as recently as October 25. In Lincoln County, negating a corridor overlay was a key campaign issue in Chairman Wade Johnson’s victory in 2008 and the proximate cause of the firing of his Planning and Zoning Director.
We trust that residents throughout Richmond County are acutely aware of the many recent failings of its government and have ample reason to be terrified at what lies in store for their most precious property rights at the hands of these failed “leaders.”
I suggest you all wake up. Now.
What Will Happen Next?
Inside sources are telling CityStink.net that the commission will likely approve the overlay zoning district proposal at today’s meeting. However, commissioners could be swayed by a large turnout of residents in opposition at today’s meeting. Dee Mathis has been making the rounds of local talk radio and has been busy getting the word out. Also, the property rights and rule of law arguments made by Mathis and Gray may also have an impact on some commissioners.
However even if the proposal does pass today, Al Gray doesn’t see it as a defeat but rather just the beginning: “The vote is (really) meaningless as the matter violates notification, common purpose, and completeness requirements of the application.”
Most opponents believe that the ordinance, if passed in its current form, could not pass a legal challenge in the courts.
What to Know if You Plan to Attend:
- What: Augusta Commission Meeting
- Where: Augusta-Richmond County Municipal Building, 530 Greene St, Room #803
- When: Today (Tuesday Nov. 15th) at 5:00pm
**Advisory** You are encouraged to arrive early if you want a seat in the chambers. Protest signs are not permitted inside commission chambers. Opponents of the Overlay Zoning District proposal are planning to wear GREEN to show solidarity.
Mayor Bennett (left) and challenger McGrady (right)
Originally published by CityStink
November 5, 2011
Al M. Gray, President of Cost Recovery Works, Inc. contributed multidisciplinary review techniques in support of this article.
Mayor Bennett had a very different story for the audience in Augusta regarding his city’s financial history with the publicly financed Ripken Stadium from what the people back home are familiar with. Bennett supposedly wanted to “dispel rumors” from a 2007 Baltimore Sun article that said the small city of Aberdeen, MD was losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on their stadium and a very lop-sided financial arrangement with Ripken Baseball made it next to impossible for the city to even break even. Plus, much of the promised real-estate development the city was hoping would occur adjacent to the ballpark never materialized. Of course City Stink got a hold of the budget reports for the city of Aberdeen and found that the city was still losing hundreds of thousands of dollars annually on Ripken Stadium and still having to dip into its general fund to service the bonds.
But Bennett made it sound like everything was just hunky-dory back in The Old-Line state. But people back home knew better. It seems for years, a series of mayors, including Bennett, tried unsuccessfully to renegotiate a better deal with Ripken Baseball to stop the financial hemorrhaging for Aberdeen taxpayers. Each time, the company refused. So why did mayor Michael Bennett come down and tell an audience in Augusta a completely opposite tale and sing the praises of Ripken Baseball?
As many of you know, Ripken Baseball and Augusta mayor Deke Copenhaver have been lobbying hard for a new stadium here in Augusta. But the public has been cool on the idea of committing public funds for the project. So when the news broke back in July that Cal Ripken’s home town of Aberdeen was suffering with a financial burden with Ripken Stadium, it seemed to reinforce what stadium critics here have been saying all along.
So on October 3rd, Ripken Baseball brought Aberdeen mayor Michael Bennett (at company expense) to Augusta to engage in some damage control and some truth bending. I mean if the mayor of Aberdeen, MD says all of this is a bunch of baloney about them losing money on their stadium then it must be true right? And of course Augusta reporters won’t ask any questions or dig deeper, right?
When the folks back up in Maryland caught wind of mayor Bennett’s trip to Augusta, there were naturally a lot of questions. Such as why was mayor Bennett down in Georgia on a lobbying junket for a company his city has a financial relationship with? And, why did the mayor neglect to give the crowd in Augusta the whole story?
Patrick McGrady, who is challenging Bennett in the upcoming Nov 8th election for mayor, filed an ethics complaint over the trip.
Well on Nov 1st, just a week before the election, the Aberdeen, MD Ethics Panel (many of whom were appointed by mayor Bennett) rendered a decision on the ethics complaint against Bennett, and it found the mayor IN VIOLATION of the city’s ethics ordinance: Baltimore Sun: Ethics Panel Admonishes Mayor Bennett.
You can view the official decision by the ethics panel below:
Even though the panel did not believe the mayor “willfully” violated the ethics ordinance, they did believe the potential for a conflict of interest did exist and that mayor Bennett should have disclosed this to the city council BEFORE making the trip. He notified the council more than a week AFTER when it had already hit the blogs and newspapers. The panel also concluded that the mayor, acting in an official capacity, was in effect lobbying on behalf of a private company that could result in that company receiving a financial benefit (Ripken Baseball is trying to get Augusta to build them a stadium here). The panel did not consider the plane ticket a “gift”, nor has it been proven that mayor Bennett received some other direct financial benefit from Ripken Baseball for making the trip, but with it being election season, there are certainly many people asking questions about mayor Bennett’s motives for coming to Augusta to lobby on Ripken Baseball’s behalf and twist the facts about the financial burden of the stadium. Though there is no penalty for the ethics violation, the panel did “admonish” mayor Bennett for a “series of imprudent actions.”
How will this impact the election up there? Well we will find out after next Tuesday if this trip to Augusta cost Michael Bennett his job as mayor. The timing of this certainly could not be worse for Bennett. However things turn out in the election, many stadium critics in Augusta feel vindicated by this decision from the ethics panel in Maryland. The truth about the financial burdens of these stadiums are well documented, and for mayor Bennett and Ripken Baseball officials to come to Augusta and say that stadium critics here were spreading “rumors and misinformation” was not only disingenuous, but offensive. If they want to point the finger at who is spreading “rumors and misinformation” about the stadium, they may want to try finding a mirror.
Other media sources covering the ethics violation story:
The parking deck at 9th and Reynolds Streets
Originally published October 30, 2011 in the defunct CityStink blog
October 30, 2011
Al M. Gray, President of Cost Recovery Works, Inc. contributed multidisciplinary review techniques in support of this article
Since City Stink first ran the story this past Wednesday on the Reynolds Street parking deck saga, the proverbial fecal matter has hit the fan. Unfortunately many people in the media are still missing the big story and some have chosen to divert attention away from the main issues and toward State Sen Bill Jackson, implying that City Stink was accusing him of wrong doing and “dragging his name through the mud.” Nothing could be further from the truth.
Sen. Jackson’s name only came up because public property records show he was involved in a land swap with the city so that a small 0.07 acre parcel that he had owned with a business associate for decades could be secured for the new parking deck at 9th and Reynold’s Street. The real issue that is being ignored is the inflated price the city ended up paying for that 0.07 parcel and its implications for 933 Broad Investment Co LLC (aka Augusta Riverfront, LLC), NOT that Sen. Jackson walked away with any huge pay-off or was somehow tipped off by someone to hit it big in land speculation. If you go back and read the article you will find that City Stink never made any such accusations.
Explaining the Land Swap Transaction
State Sen. Bill Jackson and a long time business associate, who is now deceased, had owned a 0.07 acre parcel at the corner of 9th and Reynold’s Street since 1969. It just so happens it was right where the city of Augusta needed to build a new parking deck. Instead of an outright sale of the property to the city, an arrangement was set up called a 1031 Exchange. When you hear the term “Land Swap”, this is what they are referring to. These are quite common in the business world, though not quite as common for municipal governments to be a party to. But it made good business sense for Sen Jackson to want to avoid paying capital gains on the outright sale of the property, since he says he was not particularly interested in selling. No one faults Sen Jackson for making a sound business decision. The 1031 allowed him to defer any capital gains. It also allowed for more purchasing power for the two parcels he wanted in the exchange, since capital gains would have gobbled up 15% of the profit from the sale.
However, the city didn’t just swap out land with Sen Jackson that it already owned. The state Senator was interested in two small parcels at the corner of 13th street and Reynolds street adjacent to his Tile Center business. Those parcels were owned by K&W Investment Co. You can view the property records here: 1311 Reynolds St parcel and 35 13th St parcel. But the thing is, to acquire these two parcels, the city paid out $119,000. And that is the main point. Sen Jackson just got the land.. no money. The $119,000 was held in escrow by a 3rd party intermediary while the transactions were being finalized. Even though Sen Jackson didn’t walk away with a big fat check in the deal, he did get a larger parcel that was of considerable more value to his business than the tiny 0.07 acre orphaned parcel he transferred to the city at 9th and Reynolds Streets.
Now a particular talk radio personality was making it sound like the land swap was at the very best a “wash” for Jackson or that he may have even lost money on the deal. Not quite. Acquiring the crucial corner parcel at 13th St and Reynolds St gave Jackson increased visibility and access for his Tile Center business and thus increased the value of all of his land there. So Jackson made quite a good deal for himself, not faulting him with that, any good businessman would do the same thing. The question here is, in all of this, did the taxpayers make a good deal?
How Augusta Riverfront, LLC is the MAIN Beneficiary of the Land Swap
As we have said before the main player in the parking deck, aside from the city of Augusta, is Augusta Riverfront, LLC. This is the company who will manage not only the new parking deck, but the new TEE Center. They also own the Marriott hotel adjacent to the new TEE center. As we first told you, the land where the TEE center parking deck now sits is owned by a company called 933 Broad Investment Co, LLC, which we found is a shell company of Augusta Riverfront, LLC. This means that the company who wants to manage the parking deck (at a yearly fee of $25,000) actually owns the land where the deck sits, EXCEPT for that one 0.07 acre parcel involved in the land swap with State Sen Bill Jackson.
As we just told you, the city paid out $119,000 in that exchange. What that did was essentially inflate the land values where the parking deck sits, establishing a price point of $1.7 million per acre! And who owns most of that land? 933 Broad Investment Co LLC (aka Augusta Riverfront, LLC). So that puts them in a pretty sweet position over this deck. They already own the ground floor of the deck, which means they get the revenue generated from the spaces on the first level, and now they want a $25,000 contract to manage the rest of the deck. Many city leaders are crying foul and saying they were mislead and want ALL of the land where the deck sits under city ownership. But not so fast. Augusta Riverfront, LLC can now assert that their land is worth $1.7 million per acre if the city wants to buy them out. That could also be used as powerful leverage in negotiating a sweet heart management contract for managing the new Reynolds’s street deck and the one adjacent to the Marriott.
What Exactly Were Commissioners Told?
When several commissioners were told that the city did not own the land where they just built a $12 million parking deck, they were dumbfounded. It seems as though just about everyone on the commission was of the belief that Augusta Riverfront, LLC or its subsidiary had already donated their parcels of land for the deck. But that never happened. Commission meeting minutes from 2009 clearly show that city administrator Fred Russell told commissioners on multiple occasions that Augusta Riverfront, LLC or its subsidiary had AGREED to donate the land to make way for the parking deck. You can view those commission meeting minutes on the City of Augusta website.
It makes sense that Augusta Riverfront, LLC would agree to donate the land for parking deck. They were getting a sweetheart deal on the TEE Center and the management contract to operate it with no risk to them. In fact they were getting a $350,000 per year subsidy from taxpayers to run the facility. And the hotels owned by Augusta Riverfront, LLC are adjacent to the TEE Center and thus will get exclusive access to the facility. And don’t forget that the city forgave Augusta Riverfront, LLC of a $7.5 million UDAG loan that the city had acquired on their behalf back in the early 1990s for construction of the Radisson, now Marriott. So it is very plausible that commissioners would expect that Augusta Riverfront, LLC would “do the right thing” and donate the land for the parking deck.
The Deal was Changed but Someone Forgot to Tell the Commissioners
December 7, 2009 was when the crucial vote was taken that approved the deal over the TEE Center and parking deck. The meeting minutes show that once again commissioners were told by Fred Russell that Augusta Riverfront, LLC had agreed to donate the land and that the city would only need to acquire two other parcels, one from a “private individual” (that was State Sen Bill Jackson) and WAGT (though none of the actual parking deck sits on the former WAGT parcel). Commissioners voted to approve the deal based on this information. But somewhere along the way things changed, but commissioners were never told. It also was revealed that a much cheaper option for surface parking instead of a costly deck was rejected by Fred Russell without the knowledge of commissioners. Commissioners were not even aware of a parking study that proposed the cheaper surface lot option. Chris Thomas of WDRW reported on it.
So somewhere along the line the deal was changed to where the city only acquired air rights above the ground floor of the $12 million parking deck. But apparently commissioners were never told that the deal had changed. And was the parking deck even necessary in the first place? There is now a push among at least one Augusta Commissioner to clamp down on downtown parking to hopefully steer people to the new deck. So why was this deck needed? And who told the city it was absolutely necessary to build this deck?
Follow the Bonds, Follow the Money and Connect the Dots
The reason given now by city attorneys as to why the land was not donated by Augusta Riverfront, LLC is so that tax free bonds could be used for construction. But that begs the question: Why did the city need to purchase the 0.07 acre corner parcel from Sen Bill Jackson for the deck? If keeping the land under the control of Augusta Riverfront, LLC allowed for tax free bonds to be used for construction, then shouldn’t they have purchased that land from Sen Jackson instead of the city to consolidate ownership? But as we previously told you, the lopsided land swap with the city valued that parcel at $119,000, which then inflated the surrounding land values (owned by Augusta Riverfront, LLC) to $1.7 million per acre. How convenient.
The other question that begs to be asked is why The DDA (Downtown Development Authority) was taken out of the process over the issuance of the bonds for the parking deck? The DDA is a governmental authority whose original purpose was issuing and servicing bonds for downtown parking decks.. but NOT this particular downtown parking deck. Why?
Brad Owens, the founder of Augusta Today and a former member of the DDA and a frequent critic brings up the following points regarding the bonds:
“FOLLOW THE MONEY!
The key here has been said a few times but folks have missed it. Let me put the two together here for everyone:
1.) City lawyers say the deal was changed so tax-free bonds could be used for construction.
2.) His (Mayor Copenhaver) comment was the bond attorneys would have never let matters stand if there were something wrong with the deal.
Now, here are a few bones that need to be dug up on this based on the excuse that has been given;
WHO issued the bonds?
WHO is servicing the bonds?
WHICH attorney is handling this and what are the fees being charged?
ARE these “double barrel” bonds?
WHICH bank is holding the money for these deals?
WHAT interest rate/fee/surcharge is being charged by the bank?
Incompetence or Collusion?
It appears that many mistakes were made in this process involving the parking deck by the city and each one of those mistakes were to the great benefit of Augusta Riverfront, LLC. So that begs yet another question: Was this just yet another case of incompetence by city officials, or was this collusion among some key people on the city payroll and Augusta Riverfront, LLC to orchestrate a very lop-sided deal that now leaves the taxpayers with a $12 million parking deck on land they don’t even own? Also, was someone at the city involved with the inflation of the value of the land where the deck now sits to benefit Augusta Riverfront, LLC and to the detriment of the taxpayers? Why were commissioners told by Fred Russell on multiple occasions, that Augusta Riverfront, LLC had agreed to donate the land only for that to change without the commissioners being made aware of the change?
Why didn’t the DDA issue the bonds, especially when financing parking decks is the original reason it was created by the state in the first place? Was this done in an effort to remove scrutiny and oversight from the bonds?
And why isn’t Mayor Copenhaver more outraged over this whole sordid affair? He seems to be more mad at the messengers for exposing the meeting minutes that show that commissioners were mislead over ownership of the parking deck land. The mayor had this to say: “Why do some people always want to look back at matters? We should be looking ahead.”
We could not disagree more with mayor Copenhaver. Public officials should be outraged over this. The mayor may want all of this to just go away but we will most certainly not just look the other way on this when millions of dollars in public money are involved and especially not when it appears the process may have been rigged from the very beginning. We would hope that mayor Copenhaver would share the concerns of the public over this.
You can be assured there is more to come on this parking deck scandal… so stay tuned.
**Update** The connection between 933 Broad Investment Co LLC and Augusta Riverfront LLC:
933 Broad Investment Co LLC
Augusta Riverfront LLC
* Al Gray and Kurt Huttar of contributed to the Reynolds Street Parking Deck series by searching land titles through the Augusta, Georgia GIS map site.