Developer Richard Sims hit a major snag this week in moving forward with his restoration plans for two local historic homes.
Milledgeville City Council rejected Sims’ requests for special use zoning on properties he owns at 200 S. Liberty St., as well as 310 W. Greene St.
Sims has restored several homes in Milledgeville’s historic district in recent years and turned them into student housing.
The action was taken by city council after separate public hearings held Tuesday night at City Hall, where several comments were made by Sims’ attorney, Donald Oulsnam, of Milledgeville, as well as several residents who live in the downtown historic district.
Among them was Col. John Alton (Ret.), who also serves on the city’s planning and zoning commission.
The first request failed in a 4-2 vote, while the second request failed in a 5-1 vote.
Members of city council voting against the first request included Jeanette Walden, Dr. Collinda Lee, Denese Shinholster and Richard Mullins. The two in favor of granting the request were Aldermen Steve Chambers and Walter Reynolds.
The second request for City Council to uphold the recommendation of the city’s planning and zoning commission was supported by all of the members of city council except Reynolds.
Milledgeville Zoning Administrator Mervin Graham informed Mayor Mary Parham-Copelan and members of City Council that the property at 200 S. Liberty St. was granted the overlay to request the special use on Oct. 24, 2017.
Graham explained that Sims was requesting a special use for establishing 12 residences at the house.
The zoning administrator said members of the planning and zoning commission denied the request in a 3-2 vote.
Following public hearing procedures, Oulsnam addressed members of city council first on behalf of his client, Sims, who did not attend the hearings. Oulsnam said Sims, who splits time living in Milledgeville and Atlanta, was recovering from recent surgery.
“This specific property was built in 1898,” Oulsnam said. “It is a very, very large home. As many of you may recall, it was being used as a fraternity home before Mr. Sims bought it.”
After purchasing the home, he ended up evicting the fraternity residents.
Oulsnam contended that Sims wanted to do everything the right way from the beginning.
“He wanted to come before council, and we did that back in 2017 requesting the overlay,” Oulsnam said. “You may recall there was a moratorium for the period of time, so that’s been some of the delay. And we’re back here today requesting that the group use be granted.”
Sims’ attorney said such historic homes are expensive to maintain.
“Here in Milledgeville, we are losing our old homes,” Oulsnam said, as he presented slide images on a large screen depicting an old home being torn down by Georgia Military College to create a parking lot.
Another old home was shown being torn down by Georgia College and presumably it’s going to be made into a parking lot, too, he said.
“The colleges determined that the homes they owned were not feasible to restore and use them and they tore them down and repurposed them,” Oulsnam said. “Additionally, sometimes it’s just a matter of a home getting into a condition that’s just so expensive that they can’t be repaired.”
A lot of old homes and buildings that are not maintained eventually experience major structural problems.
“Mr. Sims has a stellar record of investing millions of dollars in the city of Milledgeville restoring historic properties,” Oulsnam said.
He noted that Sims also restored his own home in the historic district.
“Mr. Sims is hands-on in responsive management,” Oulsnam said. “The houses he’s got, he has tenants in them. He makes sure they are not parking on the streets. He provides adequate parking for them.”
He added that the historic homes that Sims renovates are remodeled from interior to exterior.
“They have adequate fire suppression systems and ample fire alarms,” Oulsnam said.
The attorney added that he was sure there would be opposition to the requests, but that he wanted city council to overrule the findings of the planning and zoning commission and grant the special use requests.
Parham-Copelan then opened the floor for anyone wishing to speak in opposition to the requests.
Alton was the first resident to speak.
Alton said the parking at several of the properties mentioned consists of gravel in the backyards.
“All gravel, in some cases, in the backyard,” Alton said. “And this property, three-fourths of it is now gravel. That just ruined every historic home in the district.”
The backyards of the homes used to have some sort of vegetation, Alton said.
“Are these houses, large, yes,” Alton said. “Are they overly expensive, no, but they are not cheap.”
Alton pointed out that his problem isn’t the work that Sims does on the homes that he purchases in the historic district, because he does fix them.
He explained that the problem is on the inside.
“You no longer have a historic home in many cases,” Alton said. “You have a boarding house. It means it was cut down. It means it was changed. It’s no longer the nice, open places that you had before.”
Alton told city council members that he did not want them to lose their historic district.
Richard Knapp, another resident of the historic district, also addressed City Council. He, like Alton, opposed Sims’ request.
“I live in that portion of town that [the] historic district that has been approved for those exceptions and I can tell you again from past experiences and looking at backyards and just recently again another backyard that has just been graveled in the last couple of months, across the street — the old Snider house — that had actual concrete poured without a permit, gravel parking lot without a permit, and trees without a permit,” Knapp said. “And this goes unchecked and continues to go unchecked.”
He claimed that fraternity and sorority houses are illegally in the neighborhood where he lives.
“They have the wild parties,” Knapp said. “The only thing I ask the city council [to do] is to walk the street this Thursday and Friday in the historical district all together, and then you decide how much further you want to change your city, because I tell you one thing, it’s [a] nut house out there.”
Knapp pointed out that not all of the residents were like that but there were a few.
“There needs to be a little more checks and balances,” Knapp said.
Sandy Graciaa also spoke.
“I just really feel that I need to lay upon you to ask you for your help,” Graciaa said. “Yes, there’s a place for everything, but we’re losing our rights at our place and I feel that somebody should be there for us. We live in the city and we feel like that’s you. We would appreciate it if you would help us restore our lives.”
She said she did not believe there was an argument to be made.
“Just point blank, it’s in front of you,” Graciaa said. “I sell real estate. And it’s very unethical to sell real estate unannounced and advertised to give each and every one the equal opportunity to purchase a piece of property, but that’s not done. It’s not done in this district. It’s done under the table. They sell it and a sign may go up after the fact, saying sold.”
Graciaa told city council members there was a right way to do things and a wrong way to do things.
“I would just appreciate the perseverance of the historic district; I really would appreciate that,” Graciaa said.