Amid resident concern about neighborhood disruption, the Brookhaven Planning Commission recommended approval on a rezoning application that would allow St. Martin’s Episcopal School to build new athletic facilities at its Oct. 5 meeting.
In May, the school announced it was under contract to purchase a roughly 7.2-acre tract of land along Osborne Road. The property, known historically as Morrison Farms, is made up of three parcels.
St. Martin’s is looking to rezone the three parcels to R-75 with a special land-use permit that would allow school land use in a residential district.
According to city documents, the rezoning would allow for a recreational facility including a 60-yard by 120-yard synthetic turf sports field, a 23,000 square foot multi-purpose building not to exceed two stories, 87 parking spaces, and a half-acre publicly-accessible pocket park.
A representative for the school, Den Webb, said this facility would stop the school from being at the mercy of other facilities.
“We do not have a field on our campus that would serve a regulation soccer match, so we do go beg Oglethorpe for time, or we beg a bunch of different places,” Webb said. “If they have time and they’re willing to rent it to us, it can work out, but it’s incredibly irregular.”
The commission recommended approval of the rezoning depending on city staff’s recommended conditions. Those conditions include allowing no lighting for the turf field, no permanent or temporary PA systems outside, an 8-foot opaque fence along the property line next to adjoining homes, and a greenspace buffer.
Webb said the applicant hoped the commission would consider allowing the school to have outdoor cages, one for pitching and one for batting, that would only be operational from Feb. 1 – April 30 from 3:30-6 p.m. Monday through Friday. However, the commission recommended prohibiting any such cages outside.
The commission also had discussions about the operating hours, which as listed in city documents would be 7 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Monday-Friday, 8 a.m. to 9:30 p.m. on Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 7 p.m. on Sunday. The commission did not make any recommendations, but talked about the possibility of distinguishing between operating hours for the turf field and the inside facility.
The Planning Commission recommended approval by a vote of 3-2, with commissioners Michael Diaz and Kimberly Adams voting against the motion. Diaz initially made a motion to deny the application, which lost by the same vote.
Diaz, who was part of the character area study for the Lynwood Park area, said he never envisioned this type of facility filling the Morrison Farms space. According to the city’s Comprehensive Plan, the property was envisioned as being townhomes, cluster homes, or active or passive recreation.
Diaz said he understood neighbors’ concerns about noise and disruption in the area.
“I don’t feel comfortable how this is going through,” Diaz said. “The city has struggled in the past to be able to police these things, so it’s really up to the neighborhood, which is not fair in my opinion.”
Many residents did stand up to voice support for the application, but multiple other residents spoke in public comment against the proposed rezoning. Most of the public’s concerns revolved around noise levels, the impact on their property values, and increased activity in the area that might disrupt its residential character.
“The bottom line is the noise,” said resident Jaquelin Crew. “There’s nothing that can be done about the noise of an athletic field.”
Multiple other residents raised concerns about noise levels. Susan Currey, who spoke at the podium with her husband and small child, said her biggest problems with the application were sound and the hours of operation.
According to Brookhaven’s noise ordinance, the noise limit for all zoning categories is never above 85 decibels. For a residential or “noise sensitive facility,” the limit is never above 80 decibels, although the ordinance does say there can be exemptions for “organized band and/or sports league activity sponsored by a school or the City of Brookhaven,” as long as that organization is otherwise in compliance with the code.
Currey worried that sounds like whistles, airhorns, or cracking bats would disrupt that decibel limit.
“I just feel like this is a square peg, round hole,” Currey said. “We’re just trying to put something that does not fit.”
Speaking on behalf of St. Martin’s, Webb said that the outdoor field would not be used after dark and there would not be lighting on the field.
“We recognize the fact that there is a noise ordinance in this city,” he said. “We certainly intend to abide by it.”
Other residents worried about the possible effect the facility could have on their home values.
“I think it’s fairly obvious that this is going to have a negative impact to all the surrounding homes,” said resident Scott Ulmer. “If you had a choice to buy a home, would you buy one that had a ball field in your backyard?”
Shane Moxley, a resident who spoke from experience as a real estate appraiser, said he didn’t think the school was acting in bad faith, but he believed the facility would have a negative impact on home values in the area.
“The definition of external obsolescence is a loss of value due to forces that are external to the property boundaries,” Moxley said. “Considering the documentation that’s been submitted, I’ve kind of come to the conclusion that it indeed does constitute negative exposure.”
Webb responded by saying that living near a school or school facility could be a good thing.
“An appraisal is just an opinion, and opinions can differ,” he said.
St. Martin’s added the pocket park aspect of the facility to be for the public, but one resident, Joseph Gorrell, wondered why the entire facility couldn’t be open to the public at large.
“A little half acre is not going to do anything for us, especially in Brookhaven,” Gorrell said. “If they’re such big community people, they should let that community use the fields.”
There was much discussion of whether other groups would be able to use the fields. The commission approved a condition that would prohibit the school from leasing or renting the space, but did not add any language about if the school would be allowed to let groups use it for free.
Webb said he didn’t view the issue as St. Martin’s versus the surrounding community.
“The constituents at this school are the neighbors,” he said. “This is not an us versus them. We are part of Brookhaven as well.”
Commissioner Conor Sen made the motion to recommend approval. Commissioner Kevin Quirk said he voted in favor of that motion because he believed school facilities in a neighborhood could be beneficial to the community.
“I truly believe that thriving schools help a community and I think they’re a benefit to a neighborhood,” Quirk said. “Maybe not immediately, but over the long term.”
However, Quirk also said that while St. Martin’s might have his support, that support would not be unconditional. He brought up suggested edits that St. Martin’s made to staff’s recommended conditions, including one that would allow the school to periodically use the facilities outside of operating hours, and said he didn’t think that would be appropriate.
“I’ve heard from the neighbors, who have got very legitimate, very understandable concerns,” Quirk said. “I think the staff recommendations as written are appropriate in several areas and should not be further eroded.”
Sen said he would suggest the council take into consideration anything they could do to mitigate noise when they look over the application.
A city spokesperson said the application is expected to go before the Brookhaven City Council at its Oct. 25 meeting.