Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Preparatory School are back with a new, smaller version of their controversial Buckhead campus expansion onto a Sandy Springs site. While aiming to appease neighbors in advance of an April 24 community meeting, Holy Spirit is also citing a legal technicality to say an old agreement with the community that might partly block the project is invalid. One resident leader says that move has “appalled” the neighborhood and that, while talking is preferable, going to court is not off the table.

Holy Spirit’s plan for the combined church and Upper School campus in Buckhead at Mount Paran Road and Northside Drive is based on expanding on an adjacent 13-acre site in Sandy Springs. Relocating the Lower School from Sandy Springs’ Long Island Drive is a major component, along with some new church buildings, a parking deck and housing for retired priests and school teachers. Unveiled last fall to local controversy over traffic and tree impacts, the plan has been reduced in density, though with the main components.

Side-by-side comparisons of Holy Spirit Church and Preparatory School’s expansion proposals, with last year’s original version at left and the current version at right.

“We have scaled down the plan considerably while still accomplishing our programmatic [goals],” said Kyle Pietrantonio, Holy Spirit Prep’s head of school, in a phone interview. The density is reduced by about a third and the building footprints by about an acre. He said the plan had yet to be formally vetted by neighborhood leaders, but he thinks it is a step toward compromise. Holy Spirit aims to file the new plan with the city in May — the project needs a conditional use permit under zoning code — and posts updates on its website here.

“My sense is there’s still a continuum of discontent on the neighborhood leadership side,” said Pietrantonio. “Some of them don’t want us to touch a blade of our own grass. … Others think it’s a reasonable ask.”

Stephen Phillips, one of the residents involved in negotiations with Holy Spirit, said the community is open to discussion, but that reduction in scale isn’t enough when the plan still contains uses that are fundamentally opposed – the school expansion and the parking deck. “So we certainly don’t look at it like, ‘Wow, now everything will be fine and happy,’” he said.

Increased traffic around the already commuter-snarled intersection is a major concern, as is the asphalt and parking deck to serve it.

“We just don’t think that a commercial-grade type parking deck in the middle of a residential neighborhood is appropriate,” said Phillips, adding that residents would prefer visitor use on-street parking for special events.

Pietrantonio said the changes are intended to reduce new traffic and better handle the cars already coming. The plan shrinks some proposed buildings, removes others, and places a sports field on the top of the parking deck instead of on its own footprint on the ground. The plan also includes an interior driveway that will allow visitors to bypass the intersection and queue up to 190 vehicles – “more than we’d ever need,” says Pietrantonio.

“The bottom line is, traffic impact will be negligible for a few reasons,” he said. And with the church’s growth, traffic will increase otherwise, he added, calling the parking deck “desperately needed” and the likely first phase of construction.

Holy Spirit College, another affiliated but independent institution on the campus, has no plans to use the new facilities, Pietrantonio said.

Phillips said the smaller plan is welcome for having fewer impacts on trees and water runoff. But, he said, a common development tactic is seeking approval for a larger-than-necessary project, knowing it will be cut down in zoning review without changing the basic program. And that program, he said, shows Holy Spirit still violating the letter and spirit of a 15-year-old legal agreement.

Letter and spirit of the legal agreement

The Lower School move, in particular, is explicitly banned in extraordinarily strong terms in the 2003 legal agreement between Holy Spirit and a community group called the Northside/Chastain/Mt. Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association. In that document, the school agreed to cap the Buckhead campus student enrollment at 320 – 430 fewer than would come in the new plan – and to “prohibit any future expansion of the student body, ever, on this site, or any contiguous property.”

A section of a 2003 legal agreement in which Holy Spirit Preparatory School, then called the Donnellan School, promised to cap school enrollment and expansion on the Buckhead campus or contiguous property.

That agreement was made part of Atlanta zoning conditions that allowed the original Upper School project and which likely can’t restrain a project in the separate city of Sandy Springs. But the agreement also stands alone as a private contract, and Holy Spirit Carl Westmoreland said in a phone interview that it “could have had some restriction on the Sandy Springs property” in terms of the school element of the expansion. But, Westmoreland added, “Our understanding is that agreement has lapsed” because the association failed to renew its annual registration paperwork with the Georgia Secretary of State’s office, whose records show it was dissolved in 2005 and reformed as a new organization in 2018.

Phillips, who was CEO of the original association, said the neighbors are “upset and concerned” about Holy Spirit using that sort of “legal cop-out,” and finds it especially “disappointing” that a church and school would do so.

“I think the neighborhood is particularly appalled by the approach, ‘Oh, that agreement isn’t enforceable because of X, Y, Z,’” Phillips said, especially because an association representative has continued to meet annually with Holy Spirit leaders and approved smaller campus work. “We lived up to our part of it. … It said not to do exactly what they’re doing now.”

Phillips said he would take the blame for letting the association’s official registration lapse, but said the community relationship with Holy Spirit had been going so well that no one paid much attention to such details. He also disagreed that the lack of formal registration meant the group gave up legal rights.

“We think that’s all kind of nonsense,” he said. “We think that agreement is totally legally and morally defensible.

“The neighborhood isn’t looking forward to litigation, isn’t looking forward to a battle,” Phillips added. “…We’re willing to sit down and see if something can be worked out.”

Another legal detail is that the agreement was between the association and the school – then known as the Donnellan School – and not the church. Pietrantonio and Westmoreland said that means the church could definitely go ahead with its part of the project, which includes the parking deck. Their offer is that new agreement on a compromise plan would involve both the church and the school as signatories.

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.