By John F. Schaffner
The Atlanta International School, a beloved institution of most Buckhead leaders and residents, won a struggle with the Garden Hills Civic Association over three zoning matters this past month, but the victory came only after some heated exchanges among members of the board of Neighborhood Planning Unit-B at its first meeting of 2007.
The school had acquired some additional property and was seeking to expand its operations. Those plans required the school to obtain two separate variances and a rezoning of nine pieces of property along Peachtree Avenue from RG-2 to RG-3, both residential general sector zoning categories.
One Zoning variance, which applied to the same nine pieces of property was to allow for parking in the front yard on Peachtree Avenue, where it is otherwise prohibited, to allow for the construction of a new school building and parking deck.
The second zoning variance was to increase the maximum height of a structure from 35 feet to 41 feet to allow for an addition to the existing school and a special exception from zoning regulations to reduce the off-street parking requirement from 379 spaces to 150 spaces.
All three of the requests had been approved by NPU-B’s zoning committee 8-0-0 with 14 conditions that had been agreed to by both the school and the Garden Hills neighborhood group. However, the sticking point was that the neighborhood association wanted an additional covenant placed on the school, which would have required that the land be used as a school for the next 17 years. The school had not agreed to that covenant.
As part of the Nov. 28 approval vote, however, the zoning committee had told the two parties to go back and work on obtaining an agreement on the covenant as part of the NPU’s approval of the three zoning matters. By the Jan. 2 NPU board meeting, the two parties had not been able to come to an agreement on the covenant restricting the use of the land Atlanta International School (AIS) is purchasing to school use for the 17-year period of the covenants. The school sought to have the covenants retired if the land was no longer operated by AIS as a school.
The school’s attorney, Carl Westmoreland, explained that the school could not agree to this covenant because it is part of the land is being leased from the Atlanta Public Schools. It was further pointed out that the school might outgrow the present location and have to move its operations before the 17-year period of the covenant passes.
NPU board member John Woodham, who was representing the neighborhood’s position in the ensuing debate, pointed out that the zoning committee in voting to favor the three zoning matters for the school had stipulated that the three requests should be denied if the neighborhood and school could not arrive at a signed agreement relating to the covenant prior to the full NPU board voting on the three school requests.
The NPU-B board voted to take the three items off its zoning consent agenda for additional discussion after various board members had differing opinions on whether or not the covenant was in the best interest of both parties and whether the NPU had the right to place such a restriction on use of private property.
Woodham, representing the neighborhoods viewpoint, wanted the covenant to remain throughout the 17-year period to “assure the property would be used for a school and “to protect the neighborhood.” Other just as vocal members of the board felt the covenant was improper and should be dropped, and the owners of the land should be allowed flexibility in future use of the property. There was even an argument raised that not only the covenant, but all 14 conditions agreed to by the school and the neighborhood should be dropped.
NPU-B Zoning chair Anthony Nievera, along with board member and Development & Transportation Committee chair Sally Silver, expressed the concern that dropping all of the conditions would not be good for the neighborhood or for NPU-B. Nievera told the board, “I think we are worse off without conditions than with them.”
After determining from Westmoreland, the school’s representative, that they would go forward to the city with its requests regardless of whether or not their applications were approved by NPU-B, Silver told the board the arguments at the NPU-B meeting and the NPU’s eventual position may not really matter at the City of Atlanta Zoning Board and City Council hearings. “I just want to say that the likelihood of a well-known and respected school getting zoning is very high,” she said, implying the city would approve the three requests.”
After the lengthy and somewhat heated debate among board members, NPU-B voted 14-3-4 to support the school’s zoning requests with the original 14 conditions that had been agreed to and signed by both the school and the neighborhood association. However, the additional, contentious covenant restricting the use of the land for school use for the 17-year period was dropped from the motion to approve.
The other items that were on the zoning consent agenda were approved by NPU-B and six items had been deferred for hearing by the NPU-B Zoning Committee at its Jan. 30 meeting.
In other business, Chastain Park Conservancy board members Ray Mock, Ed Castro and Justin Wiedeman made an initial presentation to the NPU board relating to its process of developing a new master plan for the park. They pointed out that they have just started the process and are in the data collection stage, including a survey they are conducting on their website to obtain input from users of the park as to what they would like to see included in the new master plan and in park facilities and amenities. The website is www.chastainparkconservancy.org.