Downtown churches turn other cheek on illegal parking

By Polina Marinova

A bent metal sign with brown graffiti spray-painted on its bold white letters stands like an aged parking attendant in front of a church lot reading, “Private Parking: First United Methodist Church Only.”

Though the Hancock Street sign alerts trespassers that the minimum towing fee of their vehicle is $125, it may just be an empty threat.

“There are signs around the two parking lots for the church that say parking is reserved for First United Methodist Church members,” said Tom Jackson, a United Methodist Church leader and University of Georgia vice president. “But those signs are largely ignored.”

Like the vandalized sign, the church’s property isn’t shown much respect either — especially on weekend nights.

“We see broken beer bottles and evidence that people have urinated near the building,” Jackson said. “It’s really unsavory for a church, and our custodians end up arriving early in the day on Sundays to clean before the congregation begins.”

Like other churches downtown, the First United Methodist Church attempted to solve a problem that community members and church employees often face downtown — limited parking and trashed lots.

Years ago, the Methodist Church patrolled its parking lots, but eventually gave up.
“For a number of years, we had an associate pastor who was very diligent about walking around the parking lots and he would put notes on cars who were not regulars of the church,” Jackson said. “We had the repeat violators towed, but that was 10 years ago. We’ve stopped doing that. The lots are full almost every night by people who are not part of the church.”

A temporarily solution for the churches might be found in the just-opened Washington Street deck.
“I think the deck has answered a lot of our issues,” Jackson said. “It’s given us a lot of parking. The fact that there’s no charge on Sundays really helps us out.”

Laura Miller, director of the Athens Downtown Parking System, is not aware of any complaints from local churches, but she also thinks the new Washington Street deck could help alleviate parking problems.
“If someone would like to park for a longer period of time, that’s a matter of choice and the new deck would allow them to do that,” she said.
But the deck has not answered the trash issues.

The First Baptist Church located on Pulaski Street, must also clean up after the typical downtown Athens rush.
“People leave their trash behind, but it’s not a big problem,” said Susie Moon, the First Baptist Church secretary. “The way the church is situated, a lot of people walk through when they’re going downtown. And some people throw beer bottles in the bushes.”

Trash may not pose a “big problem” for the church, but due to its location, the First Baptist Church often finds unauthorized vehicles of Sigma Alpha Epsilon members on its property.

“Parking has been a problem before for us because of where we’re located downtown,” Moon said. “For instance, the SAE house is right around the corner and students park in our lots. They park kind of crazy so we’ve had to get the parking services on them a few times, but they’ve straightened up.”

The First Christian Church of Athens off Dougherty Street also confronts the same repeat violator — typically a University of Georgia student.
“Most of our parking is off-street and we have probably 10 spaces on-street right in front of the church and during the week, those are never available,” said Alan Mace, the interim minister of the First Christian Church of Athens. “To be honest, they are mostly occupied by students during the week.”

Still, Mace did not complain too much about trash left behind on the church property citing the church’s location as a possible reason.
“There are negatives in every world,” he said. “We find that we do get some trash, but we don’t have any problem with beer cans and liquor bottles. I think part of it is that we sit on the corner of downtown, and we’re not too close to the nightlife scene.”

Whatever the trash, someone needs to clean it up.

The First Presbyterian Church contracts with a cleaning service, whereas the others employ custodians to clean the lots before the church holds its morning service.

The churches apply this quick fix to solve the trash problem, but the limited parking downtown is something they do not regulate anymore.

Four central churches downtown do not issue permits to their patrons nor do they closely monitor the lots.
“Unlike some of the other churches near us, we have yet to post a sign out there telling folks that they could be towed away,” said Robert Burbage, the First Presbyterian Church business administrator. “We have certainly discussed it but at this point, we’d just prefer not to do that.”

So what are the consequences of parking in church parking lots illegally and leaving trash behind at any time of the day? There aren’t any.

Even though many of the church lots display menacing signs warning violators of hefty fines and towing fees, chances are that nothing will happen. The church leaders said they almost never tow violators. In fact, the only time the First Christian Church of Athens has enforced its written policy and towed a violator was on a Friday before a football game.

“The parking lot does say that unauthorized parkers can be towed, but we would do some serious checking before we decide to tow someone,” Mace said.

The problems of trash and limited parking are not going away and the violators are not being held accountable, yet the church leaders are not planning on presenting the issues at town hall meetings nor are they planning on moving from their central location downtown.

“We see trash from restaurants, we see newspapers and the occasional beer can,” Burbage said. “It’s just part and parcel of being a church in the center of the city. We’d prefer not to have to deal with it, but it’s part of being in such a central location.”

As a result of the central location of many of these churches, many church leaders are adopting a laissez-faire mentality to the accumulating trash and limited parking problems.

“It’s a big nuisance,” Jackson said. “We used to issue permits, but we’ve given up. It’s just too hard to patrol. Now, people trash our lots and you come in on Sunday morning and find beer cans and urine on the front steps of the church.”

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