Dekalb’s United Methodist Children’s Home property may soon be for sale

A prime piece of metro Atlanta real estate, just outside Decatur city limits may soon be on the market. The board of trustees for the United Methodist Children’s Home in incorporated DeKalb County is expected to decide today if it will sell the property it’s owned for 144 years.

UMCH officials didn’t immediately return calls seeking comment. But UMCH alumnus Debora Burger made the announcement Friday night during a gathering of 25 stakeholders including other alumni, neighborhood groups and DeKalb County Commissioner Larry Johnson.

Burger said the trustees will vote on whether it should sell the entire 75+ acre property just a stone’s throw from one of the most densely populated cities in the state, retain seven acres or sell nothing at all.

Approximately 30 acres of the property are developed and include 33 buildings, a large community garden, several playgrounds, a ball field and a small lake.

Burger said an unnamed developer wants to build 600 plus homes on the site. There may be competition for land should it come on the market.

Even though Decatur Mayor Patti Garrett said recently there are no annexation plans in the near future, the Children’s Home site has been in the city’s sights for decades.

The city has held several executive sessions concerning real estate over the past few weeks, including a rare 8 a.m. meeting Thursday. Later that day City Manager Peggy Merriss said the city maintains an interest in the tract, as it has for years, but otherwise wouldn’t comment.

She added that by law she can’t comment on the executive session’s subject or substance.

It’s likely the city would be interested in some sort of mixed-use development similar to projects recently completed or currently in progress. But there’s also a need for recreation fields and a gym, with most of the sports programs in Decatur’s Active Living Department doubling over the past decade.

City Schools Decatur has also had a years-long interest in at least part of the property as a potential site for one or two schools. CSD’s need for land was temporarily mitigated last year with the purchase of property on Talley Street and South Columbia Drive, about a half mile north of the home. But CSD has a shortage of playing fields, with Decatur High having no on-campus baseball and softball fields and no on-campus track or swimming pool.

The Children’s Home was founded in Norcross in 1871 but moved to its current site in 1873. The oldest building on campus is a stunning chapel with deep-hued stained glass windows and kid-size pews built in 1906.

Burger said she was a resident in the 1960s and 1970s where there were 200 orphans on site. But the home’s mission has changed since then, along with its need for such a sprawling landscape. For a number of years Methodist conferences nationwide have been selling off portions or all of their circa 19-century orphanages and campgrounds.

During the 1960s the Decatur Home ceased its nearly century-old farming operations. In the 1990s it began downsizing its juvenile population when national and state laws were changed, encouraging the placement of orphans into foster homes versus long-term group care historically provided by the UMCH.

By November 2014, then-Director of Communications Deborah Hakes told the AJC there were 30 young adults on campus ages18 to 21. The site also housed another 12 families, with anywhere from 20 to 30 children at a time, who were homeless or at risk of homelessness.