Noisy buses spark Catoosa County zoning dispute

Mar. 19—A woman in Catoosa County has an issue with a neighbor's use of his property as a school bus yard despite it being zoned for residential use.

The property is taxed as a business, highlighting one of the many anomalies in the county's zoning map that can lead to headaches and disagreements on land use.

Megan Levise lives in a condo on Sunset Cove Drive in Fort Oglethorpe and has for about four years. When she moved in, her neighbor across the street on Anderson Lane had used his garage as a small-scale repair shop for campers and other vehicles, she said.

Catoosa County, like many largely rural counties in Georgia and elsewhere in the United States, was late to adopt property zoning. Catoosa County implemented zoning in 1991, and ever since, the property in question has been zoned as residential.

However, the property is also taxed as a small business, from when it was operated as an auto repair shop. The repair shop has recently evolved into a bus barn where at any given time starting this fall, Levise said, 15 to 20 school buses will fire up early in the morning, run for 45 minutes to an hour, and again later in the afternoon as they warm up for a day of routes.

"It's so bad I can't open my windows anymore," Levise said. "The diesel fuel and the particles in the air are very bad for someone like me, let alone the average person."

Levise said she is on her fourth pacemaker, has a heart condition, has had three pulmonary embolisms and has had one stroke.

Marissa Brower, spokesperson with the Catoosa County Schools, said none of the district's buses are on the lot. Cody Patterson, spokesperson with Hamilton County Schools, said the district has contracts with outside businesses that deal with these kinds of operations. Patterson didn't respond to a request for specifics of the agreement at Anderson Lane.

James Davis, director of Planning and Inspections for Catoosa County government, said because the business was grandfathered in as the zoning took effect, there's nothing his office could do to remedy problems that Levise might have.

"It's been there long before anything else in the area," Davis said. "I can't change that. [Levise] is welcome to file a civil suit, but as far as the county ordinance goes, there's really nothing I could do."

Even if the property has changed ownership, which county records show, that doesn't change the fact the property was grandfathered, Davis said. Especially because the use of the property has continued.

Local businessman Emerson Russell has owned the property for about 20 years. Russell confirmed to the Times Free Press on Thursday that the property used to be a small auto repair shop but it shut down when the owner died last year. After that, Russell started renting the space to John Thatcher, who has since cleaned up the spot and is using it as the bus barn.

"It used to look like a junkyard," Russell said. "This business is much cleaner and more desirable with what John's doing now. But if I need to talk to him about the noise or something, I'll have to see what the issues are, and I'd be happy to get with John and try to make it more compatible with the community there."

Davis said when the zoning maps were created in 1991, "they just threw certain zoning designations on certain areas."

"They didn't look at every single parcel that was around. I can't really speak for what they did in the '90s," he said. "Because it was an existing business at the time, it can continue its use whether it was zoned residential or not. As long as it doesn't stop operation for a year, it can continue its grandfathered use."

Davis added that discrepancies with grandfathered and non-conforming uses in the zoning map is "everywhere" in the county and even in the country.

Levise said the inconsistency with the county's zoning is frustrating and she feels like she is at a dead end.

"I understand [they're] trying to make a living, but it's having a negative impact on my property value and my health," she said.

Russell was sympathetic to Levise's worries, especially the early morning aspect of Thatcher's operation, and said he would try to talk with her about it in the near future.

Contact Patrick Filbin at or 423-757-6476. Follow him on Twitter @PatrickFilbin.