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Augusta, Georgia Seizes Property, Refuses to Answer Questions about Hyde Park Project

UPDATE: For the latest on Hyde Park, check out this link for all our stories. View the original story below:

The city of Augusta, Georgia is seizing 370 parcels of land from residents of the Hyde Park neighborhood.

The land will be used to “…improve the water quality and flooding conditions in the Hyde Park community,” according to a government document obtained by Watchdog Wire.

The city plans to build the “Hyde Park Regional Detention Pond” at a cost of over $18 million, including the cost to acquire the land. Watchdog Wire previously reported on the city’s financial woes.

Practically speaking, what does this mean?

According to multiple Hyde Park residents who spoke with Watchdog Wire, this means the loss of family homes that were built with help from the G.I. Bill after World War II. They also say the area hasn’t experienced major flooding in decades.

The city has brushed off Watchdog Wire’s efforts to obtain information regarding the legal justification for taking the land and relocating residents. One concerned citizen who spoke to Watchdog Wire is concerned the 1970 Uniform Relocation Act is not being properly followed.

The largely poor, African American residents of Hyde Park can’t afford legal representation, making them vulnerable to abuses by the city government. Understandably, some are concerned that federal and state laws are not being properly followed.

According to one Hyde Park resident, this situation is causing problems for the people effected.

“I don’t know what they are doing over here, but they are really interrupting my life,” she said.

“I went back in debt to have my home renovated because they initially said I was going to stay,” the woman added. “People let their homes run down waiting to be relocated.”

The city has reportedly been after the Hyde Park property for years. At one time, the city claimed the land was contaminated, but environmental tests later proved that to be largely untrue.

Woody Merry, a well-known community activist in Augusta, was contacted by Hyde Park residents because his family’s company provided many of the bricks used to build the homes.

“I just couldn’t turn my back on them,” he said.

Merry told Watchdog Wire that the area has long been a source of controversy.

“The Hyde Park area has been a center of controversy for 30 plus years,” he said. “Some people want the area really badly.”

One Hyde Park resident, who wished to remain anonymous, took possession of her childhood home in Hyde Park after her mother died. Because it is technically not her primary residence, she says the city is planning to pay her less for the property.

“If you did not live in house, you would not get as good of a deal,” she said. “My mother lived in that house until 2008 when she died. Because she died, we expect we won’t get much compensation, just the value of the land.”

Because of the house’s age and the costs that would have been required to fix it up, the woman lives in an apartment. Had the threat of relocation not existed, she would have considered fixing the house and living there.

“The property was our home, my father bought and built on the land way before I was born,” she said.

Watchdog Wire has investigated this story since August 2013. In November, we reached out to multiple city officials for answers to basic questions. Despite multiple emails and phone calls, few answers were ever given. Most emails to officials were ignored.

On December 11, Watchdog Wire faxed an open records request to the Augusta Law Department. Due to holiday delays, we did not receive the city’s initial response until January.

The city refused to provide a cost estimate for fees related to the open records request. When the city eventually mailed the documents to Watchdog Wire, included was an invoice charging $126.80 for the documents.

According to Georgia’s Open Records Act, agencies are required to provided an estimate of costs if they plan to charge more than $25:

In any instance in which an agency will seek costs in excess of $25.00 for responding to a request, the agency shall notify the requester within a reasonable amount of time not to exceed three business days and inform the requester of the estimate of the costs, and the agency may defer search and retrieval of the records until the requester agrees to pay the estimated costs unless the requester has stated in his or her request a willingness to pay an amount that exceeds the search and retrieval costs.

Despite sending 108 pages of documents, a number of questions remained unanswered. It is still unclear what laws Augusta is following or not following. It is also unclear how taxpayer dollars are being used to compensate relocated residents.

More details of Watchdog Wire’s investigation will be published each week as events warrant. If you have information about the Hyde Park project, please email us at info@watchdogwire.com or reach out to us on Facebook or Twitter.

Featured Image: Map of Hyde Park showing plans for detention pond. 

Josh Kaib

Josh Kaib is the Assistant Editor of Watchdog Wire. Twitter: @joshkaib

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Categories: Budget and Finance, Courts & Law, Environment, Government Transparency, Must Read, News, Policy, Waste, Fraud and Abuse
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