Brookhaven’s St. Martin’s Episcopal School has purchased the shuttered Highpoint Episcopal Community Church and is seeking to use it as a school or daycare.

The COVID-19 pandemic has stalled plans to continue the process in trying to get a special use permit for the new use of the property at 4945 High Point Road. “In the short term, it falls in line with what that space has been used for in the past. It served the community, it served young families on and off. And we are going to continue to do the same,” said Luis Ottley, head of school for St. Martin’s.

The Highpoint church property as it appears in Fulton County property records.

Duffy Hickey, president of the High Point Civic Association and a former member of the church, said he’s generally in favor of the use, but also a little concerned.

Hickey said members of the HPCA had a conference call with school officials on Aug. 18,  “and it’s clear that it’s not a school. But it’s really a daycare,” he said.

The church was a fixture in the community for more than 50 years, though its congregation dwindled to a dozen in 2016. Within a year  the church had renamed itself from the Church of the Atonement in a fresh start that more than tripled members of the church. But less than three years later the church held its final service on Jan. 12 because the 40 members weren’t enough to support its operations.

On April 22, the church and its property were sold to St. Martin’s Episcopal School for $10 and closing costs, with the actual cost redacted on the purchase and sales agreement filed with the city’s planning and zoning department, plus additional requirements for at minimum $1 million in liability insurance and a title warranty.

By June 12, St. Martin’s had filed documents with the city’s Planning and Zoning Department that include the sales contract and a project information sheet.

The school held a community meeting on June 29 virtually and at the former church to present its plans for a private school and daycare use.

A second community meeting and a Planning Commission meeting needs to be held. The anticipated application date of July 7 for a conditional use permit passed without St. Martin’s being able to file any paperwork, which would detail plans for the site. That application would need to go before the city planning commission for a recommendation. From there the zoning case would go before City Council for approval or denial.

None of those steps in the process have been held due to the pandemic causing the city to cancel in-person meetings. The city’s permitting office is only open to phone calls,  and the Planning Commission has not been able to meet.

Kristi Gaffney, director of marketing for St. Martin’s, said the pandemic has slowed or redirected their planning processes and they are still under development. The school has not decided staff needs, numbers of children or even the age ranges. It is too soon to say the school would request the location be used only for infants and toddlers, or to include older preschool-aged children, she said.

The church has a community garden on its grounds, which Ottley said will stay that way. He hopes to use a section for the school so children can learn hands-on.

“I think that’s a symbol of what Episcopal identity is all about,” Ottley said. “And I can’t wait for our kiddos to have the opportunity to be a part of it. It’s going to be beautiful.”

Head of School Luis Ottley checks the temperature of a student arriving at the St. Martin’s Episcopal School campus in Brookhaven during the pandemic. (Special)

A memorial garden also is located on the church property where the cremains of some former parishioners have been interred. Under terms of the property sale, the Episcopal Diocese of Atlanta is responsible for removing the remains within 18 months and reinterring them under its own guidelines.

The HPCA has not taken a stance on the proposal. Hickey, who serves as its president, said it is too soon to make a decision  and they do not have enough information.

Speaking only for himself, Hickey said he would prefer that they allow the location to continue to be used for community meetings. And he was glad to hear they said the community garden would be open to the community, as his wife has been managing it for eight years.

Hickey appreciates the offer Ottley made to open the church to former members for church services occasionally, but doesn’t expect many takers.

“When we had a parish going there and later a worshipping community, not an official parish, and we had an Episcopal priest with us, we weren’t getting more than 30 or 40 people in a service unless it was Easter or Christmas,” he said. “And that’s why the parish was closed.”

“I could see them doing services there for the school kids and the parents of the school kids,” Hickey said.

The former church location has the space to accommodate some of St. Martin’s staff and some storage, as space for both are in short supply at their Brookhaven school campus.

“And now with COVID, we need all the open space we can get,” Ottley said.

The building needs work for St. Martin’s use.

“There are definitely some renovations that we will need to make to the building so that it’s up to code for young children and for staff,” he said.

They’ll need doors with windows, more windows, more light and more space per child.

“We just need to move walls around basically, is what we will end up doing,” Ottley said.

The sanctuary probably would be used for chapel that’s held once per week.

Ottley said St. Martin’s has had strong relationships with city and neighborhood partners in Brookhaven, a practice they want to continue in Sandy Springs.

Bob Pepalis covers Sandy Springs for Rough Draft Atlanta and Reporter Newspapers.