By Ben Smith

Marist School plans to expand the student parking lot (pictured, right) will encompass the practice field currently to its immediate west.

To DeKalb County Commissioner Kathie Gannon, the issue appears clear-cut. Marist School cannot remove wetland trees to expand its campus without violating the county’s zoning code.

“For me, their threshold issue is the treatment of the flood plain,” Gannon said during an interview Feb. 19.

Marist wants to cut flood plain trees to build a new lacrosse and soccer field and a parking lot on the north side of Nancy Creek, which flows through the campus.

The permit request is part of a larger project to redevelop the campus. It includes renovating and raising the height of existing buildings, adding parking lots and new tennis courts, as well as install new ball fields.

The DeKalb County Board of Commissioners is scheduled to vote on the matter on March 16.

Gannon said she sent a letter to Marist’s attorneys in mid-February asking for the legal basis for the school’s request to remove flood plain trees. On Friday, Gannon said she was still waiting for a response.

The county’s tree ordinance, enacted in February 1999, prohibits cutting down flood plain trees. Neighborhood activists say that making an exception for Marist would set a bad precedent.

“When it comes to zoning, the old adage of the camel that gets its nose in the tent really applies.” said Gail Davidson, president of the Ashford Alliance Community Association. “If this goes through, it could be a disaster.

The association’s board voted to ask the county not to allow the tree removal.

“In the future developers and their lawyers will use it as a precedent and demand the same kind of decisions for their clients,” Davidson said.

However, Marist attorney Kathy Zickert said the precedent has already been made. Zickert cited past waivers granted for Silverbacks Stadium in Doraville and New Birth Missionary Baptist Church, which built baseball fields in flood plains.

Zickert said that Marist was previously granted permission to develop in the disputed wooded flood area on the northwest side of the campus.

In 2000, after the passage of the tree ordinance, Zickert said she obtained permits to build a 20,000-square-foot stadium and a 12,000-square-foot cafeteria and a parking lot on the same site.

The plan was to convert an existing Montessori school into a middle school for 600 students, Zickert said.

“I can develop on that property right now,” Zickert said. “It’s a myth that you can’t build in a flood plain.”

Exceptions to the ban on clear-cutting wetlands include the removal of diseased or insect-infected trees, to build or repair roads or utilities or to manage storm water.

The county also may waive the ban for landowners who will suffer significant financial harm. A waiver may also be granted if at least 75 percent of the property received land disturbance permits prior to the 1999 tree ordinance.

Zickert said the Marist project easily meets that standard.

Davidson and other members of the association say they don’t object to most of Marist’s expansion plans.

“We’re just opposed to cutting down trees in a flood plain,” Davidson said. “Once that issue is determined, we can move forward. Hopefully we’ll get this thing decided.”