Fulton residents (again) protest Catholic church, school expansion

For interstate-weary commuters taking Northside Drive as a cut-through, the yard signs are the first clue there’s a fight brewing in this community.

“RESPECT OUR NEIGHBORHOOD,” the first line of the sign reads, “HONOR THE AGREEMENT.”

Holy Spirit Catholic Church and the church's independent preparatory school want to build a two-story parking deck with more than 200 spots, build a new 40,000-square-foot school building, construct a recreation center and add new lanes on Northside Drive and Mount Paran Road to handle traffic better. But doing so would require rewriting a 20-year-old agreement limiting development on the church's 34 acres.

The neighbors opposed said they have put up more than 300 plastic signs in yards around the canopy-covered ITP oasis just north of Chastain Park. The sight is jarring considering the rest of the yard usually looks like someone cut the grass by hand with scissors.

There’s plenty of passion and money on both sides of this fight, which dates back to 2003 when the neighborhood association and the school signed a deal that restricted expansion and capped the number of students at 320.

“This is a complex case,” said Sandy Springs spokeswoman Sharon Kraun, “regarding zoning under the City of Atlanta and decisions made prior to the incorporation of the city of Sandy Springs.”

In preparation for a redevelopment request, school officials said they worked with expansion opponents and reduced the amount of building it had planned by a third. But it isn't enough for some residents.

The disagreement has devolved into whispers about stolen signs and a threat of a lawsuit.

Neil Johnson, a homebuilder who is also the chair of the school facilities committee, said they are trying to negotiate with people “who just don’t want to see anything built.” Opponents say that’s because the decades-old agreement bars any building.

Sandy Springs council members and zoning officials won’t comment on the church’s proposal before votes are taken. Kraun said city officials shouldn’t comment on the odds of the project’s approval because officials don’t want to influence what is expected to be a complicated process.

» IN OTHER LOCAL NEWS | Police won’t respond? Sandy Springs law shows tension with alarm groups

Some neighbors say the expansion would violate the 2003 agreement, but nearby school parents like Dan Hillman say “for us a school community to remain competitive … it’s time to update.”

"I see this as creeping commercialization," said Stephen Phillips, an anti-expansion leader who has lived in the area 29 years. "A parking deck is not a residential building."

It seems the parking deck is one of the most objectionable parts for Phillips and many others, which is tough because the need for parking started the talks of expansion for Holy Spirit.

“Parking drove a lot of this,” said Kyle Pietrantonio, head of the school, which shares the church’s name and property. The land stretches across the Atlanta-Sandy Springs border on both sides, further complicating the expansion.

Holy Spirit Catholic Church and its associated preparatory school want to clear some of these trees should the city of Sandy Springs approve plans to expand. The proposal is meeting backlash and threats of a lawsuit from some in the neighborhood. (Ben Brasch/AJC)

icon to expand image

Tall trees fill the rolling land so well it’s easy to forget until you catch a glimpse of cars driving on Mount Paran Road, but many of those would be cut down to make room for the parking deck.

Pietrantonio said the idea for more parking came from a self-assessment by the school two years ago. He said he didn’t really understand all of the stipulations of the 2003 agreement when he became the head of schools about six years ago. He said he had a hard time finding a copy of the agreement when he took over.

Both sides have tried to use technicalities in that old agreement to their advantage — like the neighborhood association forgetting its annual registration with the state and that the school’s name has changed from the one listed on the agreement.

“There has been some interesting confusion around the agreement,” Pietrantonio said.

Kyle Pietrantonio, head of the Holy Spirit Preparatory School, stands for a picture amid land that would be cleared of some of its trees should the school be approved to expand. The proposal is meeting backlash and threats of a lawsuit from some in the neighborhood. (Ben Brasch/AJC)

icon to expand image

Amy Hillman is a land-use attorney who lives 3.5 miles away from the church with her husband Dan and their three children who attend the school. She said the neighborhood’s argument that the deal lasts forever is “completely one-sided and unreasonable.”

Though Hillman said there’s no expiration date written into the agreement, the church and school say they want to renegotiate the deal but have found the anti-expansion residents to be unwilling.

"We're trying to honor the spirit of the agreement," Hillman said. She added: "At some point it becomes unreasonable."

Stanley Birch, a retired federal judge who said he has lived in the neighborhood 25 years, disagreed with Hillman’s perspective at the public meeting last week. “When you make that deal that should mean something to you not necessarily on a legal level, but on a moral level,” he said.

» IN OTHER LOCAL NEWS | North Fulton prepares for e-scooters, but do they need to?

Birch, best known for his ruling in the highly publicized right-to-die case of Terri Schiavo two decades ago, added: “The church, the diocese, made a promise and now they don’t want to keep it, and I think that’s morally reprehensible.”

In January 1998, the church tried to file a 20-year master plan with Atlanta city planners calling for a school and a parking deck, but it was shot down by Atlanta officials. Even then, Phillips and some of his neighbors felt expansion would bring traffic to the area and ruin the rarity of an urban forest.

Stephen Phillips looks over documents while talking about his opposition to the expansion of Holy Spirit Catholic Church and its associated preparatory school in Sandy Springs, Georgia on Monday, April 29, 2019. (EMILY HANEY/emily.haney@ajc.com)

icon to expand image

The fight in the late 90s got so nasty the church hired former state attorney general Mike Bowers to file a federal lawsuit to build the school. With the lawsuit pending, city officials urged residents to work with the church. The Atlanta City Council approved a permit after the two sides struck a deal. It cut the planned school enrollment in half to 320 students and provided residents an unusual legal avenue to bypass city officials and hold the developer accountable through a breach-of-contract lawsuit.

The Atlanta Journal-Constitution explains the quirky agreement in an August 2003 article: “For example, if school officials allowed something as seemingly benign as the use of starting guns at track practices, the residents could sue the school. They don’t have to rely on City Hall.”

The article quoted Phillips saying: “This contract gives us the right to make a legal claim if the school is not a good neighbor, which I hope it will be.”

Like North Fulton County News Now on Facebook | Follow on Twitter

His hopes have now been dashed. “Putting more and more on that property is not a sustainable plan for them or the community,” Phillips told the AJC this week.

School officials said they don’t understand how having a respected education institution grow in their neighborhood would be a bad thing but are aware their expansion efforts could lead to legal action.

Retired judge Stanley Birch, thinks that’s a good idea. Birch, who added that he’d offer his legal help pro-bono to stop the development, said the years and money required to fight would be worth it to protect the investment of their homes and neighborhood.

“We have a financial stake in it, too,” Birch said. “And there’s more of us than there is of you, and we’ll put the money up that’s needed to hire the lawyers.”

In other news...

Six Georgia college graduates reflect on how far they have come and how far they will go following their Spring 2019 graduation.