Druid Hills riled over planned subdivision

Homeowners: Charm of area at risk

Bruce MacGregor likes that he can spot pileated woodpeckers and foxes from the back window of his home along a stream just a few miles east of downtown Atlanta.

He and many residents of the leafy, affluent Druid Hills neighborhood, however, say a premier historic area is under attack because of a DeKalb County planning commission vote last month.

The board agreed to allow a well-known attorney to carve up three neighborhood properties into a seven-lot subdivision off Clifton Road, complete with a new side street.

“It would in effect make Druid Hills like a typical Gwinnett cul-de-sac area,” said MacGregor, president of the 4,000-household civic association. “That affects the historic character of our community.”

The association is suing to overturn the planning panel’s 4-3 vote, arguing it acted before the county’s Historic Preservation Commission approved the idea.

Residents have picked up an unusual legal ally: DeKalb County itself. The county also filed a suit in Superior Court against each member of its own planning commission.

“The board of commissioners gave the planning commission its authority, so it’s pretty unusual to challenge an act they gave them the power to do,” said Doug Dillard, an Atlanta attorney with 40 years’ experience in zoning battles. “I’m not sure there would be a fight at all if it wasn’t for the question of historical preservation.”

The battle dates back years and goes to the heart of what makes Druid Hills, which is listed on the National Register of Historic Places, one of metro Atlanta’s special places.

Druid Hills began taking shape in 1893, the last American suburb planned by noted landscape architect Frederick Law Olmsted. His designs created the linear parks along Ponce de Leon Avenue and the curving streets of the neighborhood that straddles DeKalb and Atlanta.

The layout is more distinctive than the homes, which range from large manors along Oakdale and Springdale roads to smaller cottages and bungalows closer to Emory University.

Past efforts to redevelop in the area — whether it be building condos or adding height to the one-story Emory Village commercial strip — have drawn the ire of residents.

Robert Buckler bought the three lots, where just one large home stood, about eight years ago. He tore down the older home and proposed cutting up the lots into smaller properties for new homes.

The county’s Historic Preservation Commission has repeatedly agreed with residents, denying the subdivision it said would erode the historic character of Druid Hills.

Buckler, a partner at Troutman Sanders law firm, went to court three times to battle the rulings. Last year, he took a different tack and applied directly to the county planning commission.

Neither Buckler nor his attorney, Pete Degnan, could be reached for comment.

But Buckler was armed with a letter from the state Department of Natural Resources, responding to his questions about his rights. Commissioner Mark Williams, whose office includes a Historic Preservation Division, wrote that Buckler’s property “does not seem to me to rise” to the level of a historic district.

In other words, Buckler never needed HPC approval. DeKalb Planning Commission member Wendy Butler, a land-use lawyer, reviewed the letter and came to the same conclusion. She made the motion to allow Buckler to proceed.

“I don’t want to set aside a community’s emotion, but you never can set aside the law,” said Butler, who has since left the planning panel. “While it may be an unpleasant decision, I believe it was the right one.”

DeKalb County spokespeople declined to comment on why they filed a suit, saying they do not discuss pending litigation. But Butler and Druid Hills residents agree that the subdivision could create more change in the staid neighborhood.

Dillard, the zoning attorney who is not involved in the case, said new construction can add value to the well-designed community without challenging the historic flavor.

“One way to preserve the vitality of a neighborhood is to have a mix of properties,” Dillard said.

MacGregor isn’t buying it. A city planner who has lived in the community for 30 years, he says Buckler’s subdivision, and others that could follow, would mean less greenspace.

Losing the hardwood canopy that drapes over the curvy streets would change what makes Druid Hills unique to Rob Benfield, an attorney who sought out the green community a decade ago.

“If you can shoehorn a cul-de-sac and split up lots on Clifton, you can do it to the linear park on Ponce,” Benfield said. “It’s a mortal threat.”