Plan to move priests riles residents

Lawyers ready to argue over cathedral’s plans

Atlanta Catholic Archbishop Wilton Gregory’s former residence near the Cathedral of Christ the King in Buckhead is at the center of a dispute brewing between some neighbors and the church.

A lawyer for the Archdiocese of Atlanta said opposition to church plans to renovate the house amounts to a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act and smacks of religious discrimination. Interfering with those proposals, she wrote, “will be met by very strong opposition.”

A lawyer for a handful of neighbors argues that Christ the King’s “extravagant project” would create a dormitory in a historic neighborhood zoned for single-family homes.

The disagreement is the latest development in a controversy that erupted last month, focusing attention on local church spending at a time when Pope Francis is calling on Catholics worldwide to live more simply. The debate became so heated that Gregory announced April 5 that he’ll move into humbler accommodations and sell his new home, built in 2013 with millions from a deceased parishioner’s will.

That parishioner, Joseph Mitchell, nephew of “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, died in 2011. He left $15 million to the archdiocese and Christ the King, his parish. The will also bequeathed his home on Habersham Road to the archdiocese.

What happened next prompted protests that have yet to fully subside.

Using money from Mitchell’s will, Christ the King bought Gregory’s old house on West Wesley Road for $1.9 million. Church officials said it would be the new home for Christ the King’s six priests, including its pastor, the Rev. Monsignor Frank McNamee. Plans call for them to move out of the rectory, located on the parish campus on Peachtree Road.

The church also got permits to add a building with extra bedrooms. Plans also include a chapel, bar, exercise room and other amenities. The initial estimate for the improvements: $292,000, which critics expect to balloon.

The archdiocese, in the meantime, flattened Mitchell’s old house, a ranch-style home on a 1.8-acre tract on Habersham Road. In its place rose a two-story, 6,196-square-foot structure with two dining rooms, a three-car garage and a “safe room” guarded by a steel door and elaborate locking system. It cost $2.2 million.

After parishioners reacted angrily, Gregory announced he’ll sell the mansion, which at least one Realtor estimated could sell for as much as $3.8 million. A committee is seeking another house for the archbishop closer to the archdiocese offices in Smyrna.

Christ the King, meanwhile, is going forward with its plans for the archbishop’s old home. Attorney Kathryn M. Zickert, representing the parish, said she believes its proposals are fair.

“The city issued the relevant permits appropriately, and any effort to interfere with them will be met by very strong opposition,” she wrote Tuesday to attorney Hakim Hilliard, whom some residents recently hired to oppose the project. She added that “any further efforts to intimidate or coerce my client in its efforts to provide this home for six priests in my view is a violation of the federal Fair Housing Act.”

“Your client’s conduct,” she continued, “also is a blatant effort to deny dwelling to these six persons because of their religion.”

The parish, Hilliard said, is trying to create a church annex in a neighborhood where such structures aren’t allowed. Christ the King should have gotten a special-use permit for such a job, he said, but did not.

The plan also is out of character for Peachtree Heights West, he said.

“It’s an extravagant project,” Hilliard said. “People with big homes have a lot of room, but they don’t have chapels in them.”

Hilliard said he hopes the parish and his clients can reach a compromise. Failing that, he said, “there are legal remedies available.”

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