DeKalb city rejects part of ministry’s sprawling expansion plans

Construction continues on some parts of the NAMB’s land. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Construction continues on some parts of the NAMB’s land. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

The city of Clarkston on Tuesday dealt a blow to a large church organization looking to build a massive campus near the center of town.

The City Council voted to deny a permit application from the North American Mission Board to build a gym, two athletic fields, a playground and a pavilion on a 1.6-acre lot just a block from City Hall.

It’s not the first time the city has found itself at odds with the Alpharetta-based ministry, which is an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention. About a month ago, the city gave up its fight with the group over the demolition of two historic houses on the site. The homes were ultimately torn down two weeks ago, but the NAMB will not be able to immediately move forward with its plans to build the athletic facilities after Tuesday’s vote.

The issue has “clearly divided Clarkston,” said Ted Terry, Clarkston’s mayor who stepped down on Wednesday when he qualified to run for the DeKalb County commission. “We have had many public meetings where in some cases neighbors have been very forceful in their disagreements.”

One of the homes on the land is torn down last month. (Courtesy/Susan Hood)
One of the homes on the land is torn down last month. (Courtesy/Susan Hood)

The church is still moving forward with plans to build a missionary center and some housing on nearby land; those permits were previously approved by the city. Eventually, the ministry envisions a campus spread out across almost four blocks near the Clarkston International Bible Church, which the NAMB owns.

“We love this community, we love all of our neighbors, and we’ll continue the dialogue on how to best serve our community,” Trent DeLoach, the senior pastor at Clarkston International Bible Church.

But several residents said the proposed sports development between Rowland and Rogers streets would change the character of the neighborhood, which is mostly residential and sits in the shade of large trees. Both city staff and the planning and zoning commission previously recommended that the council deny the application.

“This should not fly,” Dean Moore, a resident and former councilmember, said during Tuesday’s meeting. He called the proposal the “first step in the erosion of the neighborhoods.”

Construction continues on the NAMB’s multimillion-dollar complex and ministry center. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
Construction continues on the NAMB’s multimillion-dollar complex and ministry center. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

According to its website, the NAMB does charity work and mobilizes Southern Baptists “as a missional force to impact North America with the Gospel of Jesus Christ through evangelism and church planting.” The church has said it sought to build the new campus in Clarkston in order to serve the city’s large refugee and low-income population.

In a statement Wednesday, a lawyer for the church said the council’s decision is “disappointing, and NAMB is evaluating all of its options. We look forward to the day when NAMB can complete the entire ministry center, including the recreation space, which would benefit Clarkston’s children and other residents.”

A handful of residents spoke in support of the proposal and said the proposed facilities would provide exercise opportunities for local children. The church suggested they could make the fields open to the public during certain times.

Five of the six council members ultimately voted against the permit and said it did not meet the criteria for developments in that part of Clarkston. Councilman Jamie Carroll, who supported the proposal, admitted his was “not a popular stance.”

A DeKalb judge ruled the city of Clarkston must allow an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention to demolish this house. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC
A DeKalb judge ruled the city of Clarkston must allow an arm of the Southern Baptist Convention to demolish this house. STEVE SCHAEFER / SPECIAL TO THE AJC

During his last time leading a council meeting, Terry also took the opportunity to reflect on the last several decades of development, which he said has been “quite disorderly” in Clarkston and failed to keep up with the growing population.

“Apartment complexes and other developers,” he said, “have come in, massively increasing density without any plan” to address how the city would provide green space and parks and recreation options for those new residents.

Per city law, NAMB will have to wait until at least July before filing another zoning application for that land.

Terry said Wednesday that the NAMB should “go back to the community, go back to the drawing board, and … present something that can pass.”

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