A proposal to redevelop an estate on a Buckhead cul-de-sac into a 10-house subdivision is, depending on who you ask, a threat to the neighborhood’s character or an opportunity to expand the adjacent Blue Heron Nature Preserve

The tricky thing is, one of the people to ask is both the leading critic of the proposal and a Blue Heron board member. Another is a well-known aide to an Atlanta City Council member who is offering independent advice on the park expansion possibilities. The dual roles and sticky situation at 1 Emma Lane have led to accusations of misleading information from all sides and triggered official statements of cautious neutrality from Blue Heron and the Conservation Fund, a nonprofit that for years has discussed paying for part of the land to join it to the park.

A Google Maps image shows the 1 Emma Lane property marked in red and its proximity to the Blue Heron Nature Preserve.

Sandy Springs-based Monte Hewett Homes in December filed a rezoning application for the Emma Lane property, which currently includes a Blue Heron trail built on an easement. The developer’s pitch to the city: grant a Planned Development Housing rezoning that allows a similar number of houses that could be built by right, but clustered closer together, so that around 4 of the 7 acres would be untouched green space that could become part of Blue Heron. The plan includes 30 parking spaces.

In an application letter to the city, the developer said that at least 11 houses could be built on the property under existing zoning, with extensive grading and tree removal. “However, the property’s proximity to the Nature Preserve creates a unique conservation opportunity,” the letter says.

However, no such parkland purchase agreement exists or is guaranteed to be written in the future. That raised questions for Mark Wills, a longtime Emma Lane neighbor who is also a Blue Heron board member and, now, co-founder of the Emma Lane Community Action Group, which opposes the rezoning. He is one of two Blue Heron board members in the opposition group.

“This was basically flying under the radar,” said Wills in an interview. “Blue Heron’s name has been plastered all over the application. … And the community had not been consulted. So we were flabbergasted by it.”

Owned by the city but operated by the nonprofit Blue Heron board, the park consists of three distinct areas totaling around 30 acres with a main entrance at 4055 Roswell Road in North Buckhead. Blue Heron was founded 20 years ago from a similar land deal, when the developer of the Chastain Reserve townhomes donated some floodplain land for park use. The park has grown incrementally with similar land acquisitions. The 1 Emma Lane property has been eyed for such acquisition for roughly seven years. 

That basic information is being circulated in the neighborhood by Sally Silver, a former North Buckhead Civic Association president and former longtime zoning committee chair for that organization and for Neighborhood Planning Unit B. Silver is also an aide to City Councilmember Howard Shook, but says she is acting independently and that Shook’s office has taken no position on the rezoning.

“I’ve just been trying to share my experience with previous rezonings in hopes of folks making an educated decision,” she said.

The site plan of the proposed 1 Emma Lane redevelopment as filed by Monte Hewett Homes with the city in December. Emma Lane is the cul-de-sac at the upper left. The plan shows a cluster of 10 houses and the rest of the site undeveloped.

An email to Blue Heron’s communications director was answered by Wills, who said he oversees public relations as a board member. “I wear two hats. I do not see them as in conflict…,” he said of his role on the board and on the Community Action Group.

Wearing the park hat, Wills said Blue Heron has no money for acquisition or maintenance of further green space. “To be completely frank, with the pandemic, Blue Heron is in a tight spot. … We’re trying to stay afloat now,” he said. “But don’t get me wrong. The desire to extend the footprint would be great. We just recognize right now, from a financial perspective, we are not in a position to be able to fundraise to do something like that.”

Wearing the neighborhood hat, Wills said the immediate concern is denser redevelopment. Monte Hewett Homes is already generating neighborhood controversy with the Enclave at Chastain townhome redevelopment about 850 feet away on Lakemoore Drive, where 30 homes are to be clustered on roughly 2 acres. That type of development doesn’t meet the NBCA’s privately created and city-adopted development plan, Wills said.

“This rezoning flies in the face of the North Buckhead Master Plan. That’s what has struck a nerve,” he said. 

The developer says in a zoning application that the Community Action Group is wrongly comparing the Emma Lane project’s “unique conservation opportunity” to the much smaller, denser Lakemoore project. And Silver says the Community Action Group is wrongly claiming Shook or the city are arranging a behind-the-scenes deal or approval.

For opponents, there is some historic interest as well. A mansion on the site dates to 1939 and was the home of Wiley Moore, an oil tycoon who built the lakes in what is now Blue Heron and whose wife appears to be Emma Lane’s namesake. The Community Action Group is less confident of saving the now-vacant mansion, which is owned by the trust of a family named Nicholson.

A Google Maps image of the existing house at 1 Emma Lane.

“We are not naive. We recognize there will be some type of development there,” said Wills. But his group suspects much of the green space is unbuildable anyway due to topography and a stream, so the clustered redevelopment might be unnecessary to preserve it, Wills said.

The rezoning request went to the NBCA in January but has been deferred by that group and the city amid the controversy, with the next NBCA review scheduled for March 15. “The dialogue on this project is still ongoing with several parties, so there’s a lot that’s still up in the air…,” said Jordan Edwards, the developer’s attorney.

The debate has generated accusations of misinformation from all sides. Wills says the developer is selling a parkland deal that doesn’t exist. The developer says in a zoning application that the Community Action Group is wrongly comparing the Emma Lane project to the smaller, denser Lakemoore project. Silver says the Community Action Group is wrongly claiming Shook or the city are taking a stand on the matter.

The executive committee of Blue Heron’s board has met twice about the issue, followed by a release of a statement of neutrality by chairman Norris Broyles. In the statement, Broyles said Blue Heron is not involved in any negotiations about the property and is unaware of any funding to acquire it.

“Our organization’s board has decided that we will remain neutral on the question of whether the Emma lane property should or should not be rezoned,” Broyles said in an email. “We do have an interest in the Emma property, as a part of our trail system has a right of passage with the current owner through a small portion of it in the floodplain. We hope to be able to secure a permanent right to that passage with the new owner, whoever that may be.”

The city did not respond to a comment request, but the Conservation Fund confirmed its longstanding interest.

Stacy Funderburke, the Conservation Fund’s regional counsel and associate state director for Georgia and Alabama, said in a publicly circulated email to Silver that his organization has long sought to acquire all or part of the Emma Lane property for Blue Heron, but could not afford the latest price. The organization would be interested in acquiring the part of the property offered by the developer, but does not take a position on such rezoning matters, he said.

“We are always open to additional green space opportunities in the city, and I’ve been aware of this property and its strategic importance to Blue Heron Nature Preserve for a long time,” said Funderburke in an email to the Reporter. “However, we do not get involved in rezoning questions and also only work in concert with the city of Atlanta parks department on whether any future park/green space acquisition would be a priority or not.”

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