By John Schaffner
Anne Eldridge and some of her neighbors finally feel they have gotten relief to a problem they have tried to deal with for years, the Buckhead Barn business of Johnny Imerman on 11 acres at the corner of Northside Drive and Broadland Road in northwest Buckhead.
“Over the years, I and neighbors have complained to Atlanta City Council members about this eyesore, which has continued to get worse and worse and worse,” Eldridge said of the property to the north of her Northside Drive home. “It is a health hazard and an eyesore.”
The real issue is that Imerman has operated Buckhead Barn on a home occupation business license, which requires him to live on the premises, which he does not. He actually lives in Sandy Springs in a residential area off Glenridge Drive.
Furthermore, he has 25 horses on the property — and has had as many as 30 — which is in violation of a city ordinance that allows only five hoofed animals on property in a residential area within the city limits.
After years of being upset that what was a quiet pasture had turned into an offensive commercial venture that included loud gatherings, Eldridge and her neighbors won two battles in rapid-fire succession late last month.
On Aug. 22, the city’s Zoning Review Board heard an appeal of Imerman’s home business license and withdrew the permit on a vote of 3-2.
Then on Aug. 25, Municipal Judge Gary Jackson instructed Imerman to cease and desist all of his operations and to remove 20 of the 25 horses from the property. The judge gave him 60 days to comply, but Imerman has to go to court Sept. 18 to report on his progress in meeting Jackson’s orders. Oct. 24 is the day he must have all but five horses off the premises.
“He had all this outside activity going on,” said Eldridge, who finally got “so fed up” about two years ago that she sued the city and Imerman “to get somebody to do something. He was running summer camps. He was running riding lessons and polo lessons. I think with the original permit he was allowed to do one-on-one lessons,” but not group lessons.
Eldridge also said Imerman rented the facility out for parties that included loud music. “We could not even sit out on the porch. Our windows would rattle. We would keep calling the police, and they said he could play until a certain time of night. But, in the meantime, you can’t enjoy your property; you can’t do anything. It is louder than Chastain Park would be.”
Imerman, who came to Atlanta from South Africa, bought the 11 acres in 1994 and has listed the address, 795 Blackland Road, as his residence. But Eldridge said he has not lived there for years.
Eldridge said Imerman is involved in an e-mail campaign to the Chastain Park Civic Association and Chastain Conservancy, claiming among other things that a huge mansion is going to be built there. “You can’t build on a flood plain, and he knows that, because he tried to build a house there at one point” and was denied, Eldridge said. “There is a little tiny corner of the property where maybe you could build a house.”
In an e-mail sent to his supporters after the actions of the zoning board and Municipal Court, Imerman said Buckhead Barn served “kids with special needs, to charities, to leisure riders, to campers, to birthday parties and to those who just wanted to show their families that animals do exist in the city.”
“He is running this campaign against us,” Eldridge said. “He has sent our names to this circle of people he sent e-mails to. He wants these people to help him pay for the legal bills, claiming he has spent $150,000 on lawyers. I doubt that very seriously. I and some of the neighbors have spent maybe $40,000.”
She added: “All these people claim it is convenient for them to go there, and it is cheaper than Chastain Horse Park. He claims he trains disabled children. But his people are not certified as far as I know. You have to have a national certification to do that work. It is just a third-rate operation.”
Eldridge owns 9 acres, including 7.5 acres in the same flood plain as Imerman’s property. She has one horse on her property, but just for her own enjoyment.
The Buckhead Barn property was formerly part of 22 acres owned by Dr. James Crawford, who lived on the corner of Broadland Road and Northside Drive. The land was sold as part of the settlement of Crawford’s estate. Top Hat Soccer now has the 11 acres not owned by Imerman.
“It was a beautiful green meadow,” Eldridge said. “The doctor had one or two old horses in there and a lovely little barn … always beautiful. Then Imerman bought it, and it has been downhill ever since. Good will has been slowly but surely eroded over time.”
Imerman says horses have been kept at that site since 1936, long before the land was annexed into the city, and he claims that zoning to permit a horse business should have been grandfathered in.
According to Eldridge’s attorney, Jonathan Weintraub, Imerman is expected to file for a declaratory judgment to challenge the city’s hoofed animal ordinance.
So the battle over Buckhead Barn might not be over for either Imerman or the neighbors.