Six months after filing with the city of Sandy Springs their original 20-year master plan to consolidate its lower and upper schools and expand their shared campus, Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Holy Spirit Preparatory School have presented an amended proposal following input from residents living nearby and plan to submit it with the city soon.

Also, the school and church will host a community meeting April 24 from 6 to 7 p.m. at the church, where the public is invited to offer its opinion on the master plan. In October the church and school also hosted a community meeting, where some residents spoke out against the proposal.

Holy Spirit has an eight-acre lower school campus housing kindergarten through seventh grade on Long Island Drive in Sandy Springs and a 14-acre upper school campus with grades eight through 12 on Northside Drive in Buckhead, where the church sits on 16 acres (all the school/church land is owned by the church and the Catholic Archdiocese). The school’s preschool is also on the upper school campus.

The archdiocese owns about 13 acres of mostly wooded land next door in Sandy Springs and plans to develop it to add facilities for both the church and school so the lower school can move to the upper-school campus.

The church and school plans filed with Sandy Springs will require a conditional-use permit. The main reasons for the development are to address parking issues at both the church and school and to unify the campuses.

Plan details

The original master plan calls for construction of the following:

♦ a three-story, 250-space parking deck which will be used by both the school and the church

♦ two 20,000-square-foot church buildings that will be used for classrooms and other purposes

♦ a second rectory (two stories and 12,000 square feet) to house retired priests that the church will hire

♦ two two-story, 50,000-square-foot school buildings (one used as a recreation center and the other as a classroom structure)

♦ an outdoor athletic field for the school without lights

♦ a parking area and roundabout

♦ As part of the plan, the church will also buy parts of two other lots off Jett Road to add three-quarters of an acre to the site. According to the site plan, the church’s first rectory is already located on the 13 acres of land, and the second one will be positioned close by.

Under the new plan, the athletic field has been moved to the top story of the parking deck, which has been reduced by 20 spaces, and the two classroom buildings have been replaced by one three-level, 40,000-square-foot classroom facility.

The existing rectory remains in the new plan, but the proposed second rectory has been reduced in size to 7,000 square feet. Also, the new proposal includes two 7,000-square-foot, two-story parish buildings to replace one of the classroom buildings eliminated from the original plan. Finally, the recreation center remains in the new plan at its same size.

“Just listening to some of their input around the plan, we scaled it down in terms of density, protecting more of the wooded area and trying to still execute what our priorities both from a school and church perspective are,” Kyle Pietrantonio, the school’s head of school, said of the changes made to the proposal following meetings with a neighborhood group in January and March. He added the amended plan calls for a third less density than the original one.

“It was principally why we amended the plan,” he said. “We thought this was a reasonable plan to begin with and we thought, ‘OK, we’re hearing some of their concerns around trees (and) hydrology. Let’s see if we can further amend the plan to (make it less dense).”

Monsignor Edward Dillon, the church’s pastor, said while it’s impossible to see what the church’s demands will be 20 years from now, it has an “immediate need” for more parking.

The agreement

The residents against the school’s and church’s plans have cited a 16-year-old agreement between the school and the neighborhood group.

It is tied to the school’s special-use permit the Atlanta City Council approved in 2003, so it could build on the campus previously used by Whitefield Academy and Mount Vernon Christian Academy. The school opened in 1996, and it announced two years later plans to build new facilities on that campus.

The agreement was signed by the headmaster at the school, then called the Donnellan School, and the Northside/Chastain/Mount Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association Inc., an organization founded when the church proposed a similar master plan in 1998 for a parking deck, school and additional church buildings.

The residents’ group has even created yard signs stating, “Respect Our Neighborhood; Honor The Agreement,” and many can be seen along Mount Paran and other streets.

But in a follow-up interview, Pietrantonio said the agreement is null and void. He added the school and church determined that was the case this winter and shared that information with the neighborhood group then.

“We had our legal team look into this diligently to make sure we were standing on this validly,” Pietrantonio said. “That’s what we learned. So in 2005 that neighborhood leadership group administratively dissolved, and once it dissolved, any terms of a former agreement are null and void and unenforceable. But we are open to coming up with a new agreement, knowing this old one is null and void.”

Also, since the school’s and church’s campus expansion plans fall entirely within the city of Sandy Springs, Holy Spirit will not need approval from the city of Atlanta for them.

However, Debbie Guerra, an association board member who is leading the group in its negotiations with the school and church, disagrees, saying the agreement and the special-use permit filed with Atlanta, both of which have similar language, are still valid.

“We believe there is an existing agreement that they negotiated with the neighborhood that they need to respect,” she said. “Just like they have the right to take legal action, we have the right to if it made sense, but we hope it doesn’t come to that. ... We desire that they respect the existing agreement rather than throwing it out and crafting a new one. The conditions limiting expansion that drove the negotiations between 1998 and 2003 (with the original agreement) and now involve student population, hydrology, traffic and the tree canopy are even worse now than they were originally.”

Negotiations so far

Despite the lack of an enforceable agreement, Pietrantonio said the church and school would like to craft a new one with the neighborhood group. This one would govern the entire campus, which totals 34 acres, including the 13 they plan to develop. However, Guerra said the neighborhood group would prefer to keep the old agreement in place and not craft a new one.

Pietrantonio said the negotiations with the association have gone well over the past few months, and the school and church have been willing to make some sacrifices to please the group.

“The new plan, relative to this particularly use, puts that play field on the top level of the parking structure, so we’re trying to get more utility around the building blocks we already have,” he said. “The other major shift includes slightly downsizing this school building and moving it in front of the parking structure. ... Those are the main changes.”

Pietrantonio said some members of the neighborhood group are already “satisfied” with the plan changes the school and church have made.

“I think there’s still kind of a continuum of discord on their part,” he said. “There are some that are satisfied that we’ve really gone back to the drawing board and made some of these amendments to the original plan and would be content with moving forward. I think on the other end of the continuum, there are some who are still radically opposed to touching a blade of grass. ...

“A lot of thought was put into the design of this with the roadway and the parking structure to queue over 190 cars with staggered-stop drop-off and pick-up times. We’ve never had to have police officers on campus to mitigate traffic. We’re open to that.”

A traffic study on how the school’s and church’s plan will impact the area will be presented at the April 24 meeting, Pietrantonio said. He also said the proposal, which includes adding a drive cutting through the new portion of the campus and intersecting with Mount Paran, will actually improve traffic there by providing another access point there.

Guerra is opposed to the proposed drive, partly because she lives on Mount Paran across from where it will be built, but also because she believes it will add traffic to an already congested area.

“The neighborhood views that the proposed consolidation of the campuses and the increase in the number of the students, as well as the significant construction over an undetermined period associated with the expansion, goes against the current agreement and the special-use permit that guided the upper school construction originally,” she said.

Guerra said school and church leaders haven’t addressed all of the association’s worries in their amended plan, adding “that agreement really doesn’t support school consolidation or expansion.”

“There are significant concerns over the hydrology and water runoff impacts,” she said. “Many of our neighbors on Allen Court and Conway Forest are substantially impacted at the bottom of the runoff. We have yet to see a hydrology study. Those are the types of questions that have not been fundamentally addressed to neighborhood satisfaction – particularly since neighbors believe that Holy Spirit should adhere to the current agreement that explicitly limits school expansion, construction on contiguous property, and development of new road access.

“While we’re very supportive of the church and the upper school in their current configuration, this is really an effort to keep the neighborhood protected. That’s where we are at odds. The third impact is the incremental increase with traffic on Mount Paran and surrounding streets, which is inappropriate for our residential neighborhood.”

Guerra said the group is also concerned over the mature urban forest that takes up most of the 13 acres to be developed.

“We’ve also not gotten clear answers on the (land’s) tree study,” she said.

Dillon said the church and school intend to cut down as few trees as possible, adding the trees on some parts of the campus closest to the street will be unharmed.

“The entire portion of Mount Paran from the driveway to the rectory, there’s a … 60-foot setback. None of the trees in that area will be touched,” he said. “You’ll have to come onto our property to see any of these buildings.”

Michael Keough, a longtime church member who lives nearby, represents the church in its master planning process.

“The church and school are in a mutually beneficial relationship to support a one-campus plan to add the lower school to the upper school location,” he said. “The new plan offers numerous educational and logistical benefits that are much better than having two separate entities. The parish and school can share parking and usage of buildings to take best advantage of campus facilities.

“We also want to be a good neighbor which includes listening to people’s concerns, dealing with parking, helping to mitigate traffic, conserving trees – and more. The church acquired the property in question many years ago to give us flexibility to grow our parish as needed and provide services for our community.”

During the April 16 Sandy Springs City Council meeting, six of the seven individuals speaking during its public comment portion were residents living near the church and school who said they oppose the church’s and school’s plan, including Guerra.

Emily Willingham, who lives on the corner of Mount Paran and Jett, said her father bought the property in 1948 and built his own home there. She and her family later moved into the house to live with her widowed father and widowed father in-law.

“(The church’s and school’s) 20-year master plan will disrupt the neighborhood for quite some time,” Willingham said.

Both sides hope to reach a new agreement soon, but it could take months or longer.

“Our concern,” Guerra said, “is they’re not listening to the neighborhood’s concerns, and we just want them to honor the agreement and respect the neighbor’s wishes.”

For more information on the meeting, visit http://bit.ly/2GqgQo7.