Rectory expansion challenged

Zoning dispute latest to dog Catholic church.

The Buckhead mansion that long served as the home for Georgia’s senior Catholic priest is at the center of a zoning dispute between some neighbors and the Archdiocese of Metro Atlanta.

A homeowner has filed an appeal with Atlanta’s Office of Buildings, asking it to revoke permits allowing an addition to the mansion at 136 W. Wesley Road, N.E., that would convert it into a rectory for the Cathedral of Christ the King. The project, initially projected to cost $292,000, could now cost $1 million, church officials revealed to neighborhood residents at a meeting last month.

The city made an “erroneous finding” in issuing permits allowing a rectory on the site, homeowner Wright Mitchell said in his appeal, filed Friday. City officials, the appeal alleges, approved permits for a church structure in a residential zone that allows only single-family homes. Mitchell, a lawyer, lives next-door to the job site and has rallied a loose coalition of neighbors concerned about the project.

The archdiocese should halt construction while city officials review the appeal, said Atlanta lawyer Hakim Hilliard, who filed the document on Mitchell’s behalf. Construction on the site began June 9 when crews demolished a garage.

“They proceed at their own risk,” he said.

Kathryn Zickert, a lawyer representing Christ the King, said the city acted correctly when it issued the permits.

“We feel confident in our position,” she said.

The zoning dispute is the latest real estate controversy to dog the church, as well as Archbishop Wilton Gregory. Both came under heavy criticism recently on their expenditure of millions from a deceased parishioner’s bequest, and prompted Gregory to leave a newly constructed mansion for more modest quarters.

The money came from the will of Joseph Mitchell, for years a longtime parishioner at Christ the King. Mitchell, the nephew of “Gone With the Wind” author Margaret Mitchell, died in 2011. He left $15 million to be split equally between Christ the King and the archdiocese — $7.5 million each. He also left his home, a ranch-style structure on a 1.8-acre tract on Habersham Road, to the archdiocese.

The archdiocese razed the house. In its place rose a red-brick building with a three-car garage, a “safe room” protected by a steel door and a putting green. It cost $2.2 million to build, and was Gregory’s new home. In January, he moved into the mansion, leaving the West Wesley Road home that had housed Atlanta’s archbishops for decades.

In February, the church bought his old home from the archdiocese for $1.9 million. It plans to convert it into housing for six priests, including its rector, the Rev. Monsignor Frank McNamee. Building specifications call for a separate structure, comprising nearly 3,000 square feet, that would be connected to the existing house by a walkway. Plans call for four more bedrooms, a library and bar.

Concerned about what they called lavish spending, a handful of parishioners met with Gregory and McNamee in January. The clerics, they said, weren’t adhering to the teachings of Pope Francis, who’s called on Catholics worldwide to live more simply. Neither man changed his stance. The parishioners then aired their worries in The Atlanta Journal-Constitution.

The outcry following the March 23 AJC article came from within and outside the parish, inside Atlanta and nationwide. Less than three weeks later, Gregory apologized for a lapse in judgment and announced that he’d move out of his new home, which one Atlanta Realtor estimated could fetch more nearly $4 million. Archdiocese officials said he moved to simpler quarters in Smyrna and said they plan to sell the Habersham Road mansion.

But the church’s plans for the rectory on West Wesley Road continued, prompting a tense meeting in May between some homeowners and church officials at Christ the King.

Wright told McNamee and others that the archdiocese incorrectly applied for its permits, using the wrong zoning designation when it went to the city with its plans. Builders, he said, needed a special-use permit to construct the addition to the house. McNamee, who also was at the meeting, said the church had permits and was prepared to break ground.

Neither side budged. No one came away pleased.

On Friday, Mitchell lived up to his promise to appeal.

“The archdiocese obtained the building permit for the rectory by submitting plans for the wrong zoning,” he said. “They were notified that the zoning was wrong … and they did nothing about it.”

The appeal goes to the city’s Zoning Board of Adjustment. That board can grant or deny Wright’s appeal.

The dispute, said Hilliard, Wright’s lawyer, could end up in court.

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