Following a meeting where about 300 individuals packed Holy Spirit Catholic Church’s McDonough Hall in Buckhead April 24 for a presentation and discussion on the revised 20-year master plan the church and Holy Spirit Preparatory School, which it shares its campus with, the two sides of the issue may still have a long way to go before coming to a new agreement.
When asked if progress was made in the talks between the two sides was made at the meeting, Kyle Pietrantonio, the school’s head of school said, “Absolutely.”
“The opportunity to share opinions and air out frustrations is always good,” he said. “We actually won some new friends last night with a number of supporters in attendance beyond the church and school family. Additionally, we heard a willingness on both sides to continue a constructive dialogue for a workable plan.”
But Debbie Guerra had a different take. Guerra, who lives on Mount Paran Road across the street from the school, leads the Northside/Chastain/Mount Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association Inc., an organization founded when the church proposed a similar master plan in 1998 for a parking deck, school and additional church buildings. She said not enough progress has been made yet but added this was the first of two community meetings, a requirement of the city of Sandy Springs in the permit application process.
She referenced her presentation at the meeting the night before, when she said, “We see this as massive commercial-grade construction that goes against the agreement that’s in place and it will disrupt the tranquility of our peaceful single-family residential neighborhood. … We’re concerned about losing 60 percent of the tree canopy (of an urban mature forest), not just keeping 40 percent.”
Guerra also said the church and school leaders should have shared with association leaders at their last meeting March 25 the documents they presented to the public at the April 24 meeting.
“Second, none of the specific questions were adequately answered,” she said. “Some of the ones we are most concerned about include specificity about the planned start and duration of each phase of construction, as well as lack of detail on specific mitigations to address water detention issues. It’s impossible that the developer doesn’t a more detailed plan on each phase, including how long each phase will take.”
Holy Spirit’s plan addresses its needs to address parking issues and unite its campuses, school and church leaders have said.
It has an eight-acre lower school campus housing kindergarten through seventh grade on Long Island Drive in Sandy Springs and a 14-acre upper school campus with grades eight through 12 on Northside Drive in Buckhead, where the church sits on 16 acres (all the school/church land is owned by the church and the Catholic Archdiocese). The school’s preschool is also on the upper school campus.
The archdiocese owns about 13 acres of mostly wooded land next door in Sandy Springs and plans to develop it to add facilities for both the church and school so the lower school can move to the upper-school campus.
The church and school plans filed with Sandy Springs will require a conditional-use permit. The main reasons for the development are to address parking issues at both the church and school and to unify the campuses. After the original plan was filed with the city in October and residents weighed in on the proposal at a meeting at the end of that month and a neighborhood group met separately with the church and school in subsequent months, the plans were amended to have a third less density than the first one, Pietrantonio said.
Pietrantonio said the church and school met with city staff in early April and has a May 7 filing deadline for this application.
The second public meeting will take place June 3 at City Springs, and the application is expected to go before the city’s planning commission July 23. It could be voted on by the city council as early as Aug. 20.
He said the church’s congregation is growing at a rate of 3% per year, so parking there is an ongoing issue, and the school’s parking situation is impacted when the church hosts funerals during the week.
“We hope to nearly double the available parking on the property,” Pietrantonio said.
Regarding the church’s plans to build a second rectory, Monsignor Edward Dillon, the church’s pastor, said, “It’s important to keep priests who are otherwise of retirement age to minister to some Masses. … My primary focus in all of this, after talking to the (congregation), is the parking. But the other is important and, for selfish reasons, I anticipate being one of those retired priests myself one day.”
At the meeting representatives of the project’s architecture firm, Smith Boland Architects, and planning, engineering and design firm, Foresite Group, also spoke at the meeting about the master plan. Each one provided details on different aspects of the plan. In addition, a Sandy Springs representative talked about how the school and church must adhere to the city’s tree ordinance.
Then Stephen Phillips, the association’s past leader, and Guerra spoke. Phillips, who has lived on Allen Court near the church and school for 29 years, talked about the 2003 agreement the school, then called the Donnellan School, made with the association after five years of negotiations. It was tied to the school’s special-use permit the Atlanta City Council approved that year, so it could build on the campus previously used by Whitefield Academy and Mount Vernon Christian Academy.
The residents’ group has even created yard signs stating, “Respect Our Neighborhood; Honor The Agreement,” and many can be seen along Mount Paran and other streets. While the neighbors believe the agreement is still valid, the school and church claim it’s not because the association dissolved two years after the pact was signed. But since the agreement was signed, the relationship between the church and school and the association has been peaceful, Phillips said.
“We’ve all acted in good faith. … We may have disagreements in terms of our highest priorities, but we all care about or community, our church, our school,” Phillips said, adding the residents were much more riled up about the school’s master plan in 1998 than today. “If you think there were a lot of signs out now, you should have seen it in 1998. … More than 825 people attended that meeting for the vote.”
Phillips said 75% of the residents at that meeting voted against that plan.
Carl Westmorland, the lawyer for the church and school, said they submitted the agreement documents to a third party, the Chicago Title Insurance Co., to confirm it was null and void.
“We asked them to look at the record and give us an endorsement before we were sure if the agreement was still valid, and they were of the position that it’s not so valid,” he said.
Of the 2003 agreement, Phillips said the court system may decide its validity if necessary.
Guerra also spoke about the traffic, stormwater and hydrology concerns the association has about the project.
Even though the church’s and school’s proposal is to expand only in Sandy Springs, the association claims the old agreement could block those plans because it stated development on any adjacent property would not be allowed.
Residents speak out
Once both sides gave their presentations, residents spoke during a Q&A/public comment session where they wrote their questions or comments down on index cards, though some said they only told to check a box on the sign-in sheets if they wanted to speak. Some rushed to the sign-in table to fill out cards once told they couldn’t just speak directly.
“You know, when it comes down to it, the church, the diocese made a promise and now they don’t want to keep it. And I think that’s morally reprehensible,” said retired judge Stanley Birch, who has lived on Mount Paran Road in Sandy Springs for 25 years, referring to the church’s original master plan.
Brian Van Oss, who has children attending the school, said he supports the master plan.
“First, I think it’s great for bringing the campuses together for the mixed environment for all students,” he said. “Second, I think it’s great from a religious perspective to have them together. Third, it’s great for additional parking.”
Just over half of the comments and questions were from individuals siding with the church and school. However, Guerra said the stated objective of the April 24 meeting was for the developer to present its plans and for the community to ask questions and voice concerns. She and other residents have already commented against it at Sandy Springs’ recent council meetings, and added they will continue to do so there.