By Katie Fallon
Finger pointing and allegations of improprieties flew at the Sept. 18 City Council meeting before the council voted against allowing a 31-home development that would have included a 10,500-square-foot home for 12 priests.
The application also included two concurrent variances, but the sticking point in all the community meetings leading up to the Tuesday evening vote, as well as the council meeting itself, was the home developer Richard Donner and Southern Gentry wanted to include for the dozen members of the Legionnaires of Christ, which is an arm of the Catholic Church.
In the end, council members Diane Friess, Rusty Paul, Ashley Jenkins and Tibby DeJulio voted against the project because they viewed the church as an inconsistent addition to the surrounding Greenland Road neighborhoods and not the intention of the CUP zoning Donner was requesting.
Donner’s plan for the home was to build a 12-bedroom, 12-bathroom house with an eight-car garage and a chapel designed to house the priests prayer services four times a day.
But the allegations of improprieties came when it was revealed for the first time in the myriad of public meetings that Donner had promised to make a $7,500 donation to High Point Elementary School once his project was approved. The High Point Civic Association has been Donner’s most vocal supporter.
Paul initiated the allegations when he accused Donner of outright lying to him the day prior to the meeting. Donner visited Paul’s office and told him he had not made any contributions to his supporters. Donner, however, said he did not lie because he has not made any such payments yet.
Similarly, Paul alleged that Donner attempted to attack Community Development Director Nancy Leathers’ character when Donner said Leathers told him not to refer to the home as a church when presenting the plan to the council.
“I was incredulous by that,” Paul said. “I’ve found her to be unbelievably trustworthy and truthful and up front in every instance. When I asked her about it, she was flabbergasted that would be [Donner’s] interpretation.”
One of the most telling statements made by the council came from DeJulio, who all but denounced the High Point Civic Association for their deal with Donner. DeJulio was a long time board member until he had to remove himself when he ran for city council.
“To me, this ends the credibility of the High Point Civic Association,” DeJulio said.
The Ledgemont Homeowners Association, which has been a vocal opponent of Donner’s at every public meeting, was pleased with the decision. Caroline Kresky, a member of the group’s zoning committee, has helped fight the project for several months.
“I’m delighted,” Kresky said. “I think that it was the correct decision. This rectory is of no conceivable benefit to my community or any of the surrounding communities. It is a personal mission of Mr. Donner’s.”
Donner, however, was not deterred by either the allegations made against him or the vote itself. He said he is planning an appeal.
“I will come back,” Donner said. “There are several options, but we will certainly look at all of our options and we will be back.”
Donner also leveled his own allegations against the city council.
“It seemed to me like a lot of people had personal bias and personal intentions from the beginning. That’s how they chose to vote, despite the overwhelming evidence of our rights to be there, the priests’ rights to be there, the overwhelming support we have from the community, the staff support and the Planning Commission support. The individual council members that voted against us have there own agenda.”
District 6 councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny, who was the lone opposition vote, said she has never seen an issue cause as much tension as the Southern Gentry development has.
“Frankly, it has been one of the most contentious zoning issues since I’ve been on the city council,” she said.