Architectural preservationists in Macon scored a big win Monday in their fight to save a historic African American church from the wrecking ball.
On a 4-1 vote, the Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning Commission denied a permit that would have allowed the demolition of the century-old Tremont Temple Baptist Church downtown.
The congregation moved to a new location in Macon's Bloomfield neighborhood two years ago. Now it's trying to sell the old church property to Lou Patel, a Macon businessman with plans to level the site in favor of a new Dunkin' Donuts franchise.
Congregation leaders say they need the money from the sale to fund their ongoing ministry.
Historic Macon Foundation Executive Director Josh Rogers told commissioners at Monday's hearing that his organization is prepared to buy the church from the congregation instead and preserve it, perhaps by converting the interior space into a food court that would serve foot traffic from the nearby Medical Center of Central Georgia.
Upon hearing that from Rogers, Planning & Zoning Commission Chair Sarah Gerwig told members of the congregation in attendance that Historic Macon's offer made her decision to vote against the demolition permit much easier.
"I appreciate your right to sell your property. But I hope that you understand my perspective is that the better sale is to an entity in the community that's going to maintain the structure," Gerwig said.
The only planning commissioner to vote in favor of the permit was Macon-Bibb Commissioner-elect Al Tillman. Preservationists had plenty of time to work out an alternative deal with the congregation before Monday's hearing, he said.
The congregation remains under contract with Patel. He could still opt to buy the church without the demolition permit, said Jim Rollins, the realtor representing both sides in the transaction.
Rollins told commissioners that Patel could conceivably buy the church and allow the building to collapse on its own.
That's Historic Macon's greatest fear now, Rogers said. "You can let the wind and the elements do it for you. It's called 'demolition by neglect' and it's not against the law in Macon."
The offer from Historic Macon to the congregation is financially comparable to Patel's, Rogers said. Congregation members who attended Monday's hearing declined to comment afterward about which buyer they will choose.
The congregation and Patel could, in effect, appeal Monday's decision by requesting a re-hearing on the demolition permit within 30 days.