By Gerhard Schneibel
Parents, grandparents and Holy Spirit Preparatory School students clashed with residents of the area of Long Island Drive, Hammond Drive and I-285 during a Planning Commission meeting July 17 that ended with no board action.
Supporters of Holy Spirit’s plan to build a sports complex on a vacant, 8-acre tract with an entrance on Long Island Drive wore green. Opponents wore red. After all the seats in the City Council chambers were filled, a security guard directed people into an adjacent room to wait. Hecklers interrupted the meeting several times.
Den Webb, a Smith, Gambrell & Russell attorney for the school, was the first to speak.
“I want to emphasize that the supporters of this application live in the neighborhood next door to this property. They live in the immediate area of this property. They live in the district in which this property is going to be located, and they live all over Sandy Springs. And some of them have kids at Holy Spirit Prep, and some of them don’t,” he said.
The school hopes to build a regulation-size football and soccer field with lights, a speaker system and bleachers for 400 people. The facility would include tennis courts, 150 parking spaces and a lap pool.
Original plans included a field house and an administrative building. Faced with opposition, the Catholic school combined the two into a single, 15,000-square-foot building with 12 offices for school staff.
Webb argued that the lot has been on the market for 22 years, is unsuitable for housing because of its proximity to I-285 and is adjacent to two nonresidential sites. “There are some folks living there, however. I think the council has probably heard, back in January, the Sandy Springs Police Department … swept that site and arrested a number of folks who were living in tents thereon. They were growing marijuana, and there was a marijuana package for sale.”
He added that two squatters moved back to the site this month.
Webb praised the school’s efforts to address neighbor concerns and downplayed the possible noise.
“The football program is … small in scale,” he said.
While the planning staff has said the Holy Spirit proposal doesn’t fit the city’s comprehensive plan, “we simply disagree with that,” Webb said. “Schools are allowed in every residential district of the city of Sandy Springs, period.”
Brad Skidmore, who lives on Long Island Drive, spoke against the school’s plan on behalf of seven homeowner associations.
“We oppose this application and Holy Spirit’s plans to invade an area we call home with a lighted stadium and a sports complex that not only violates the quiet and pastoral nature of the area we call home, but also the comprehensive land-use plan so painstakingly adopted by the city,” he said.
Insisting the site could be used for a residential development, Skidmore noted a number of houses abutting I-285 that have sold. “Is this site any different? Absolutely not. It has its challenges just like any other location next to a highway … but it can be residential.”
Josh Tolchin, the chairman of the First Montessori School board of trustees, spoke on behalf of the neighborhood organizations. He said he is concerned about increased traffic on Long Island Drive, particularly inexperienced high school drivers.
“These neighbors and these neighborhoods have been represented as uncooperative and unsupportive of school development,” Tolchin said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. These neighborhoods have a history of supporting Sandy Springs children and First Montessori.”
“I’m having trouble with your even being here,” Planning Commission Vice Chairman Wayne Thatcher told Tolchin.
“I’m really wrestling with this because you folks that stand up here and say schools shouldn’t be in a neighborhood … where are you coming from?” Thatcher said. “We sit here month after month after month, and we are your fellow citizens. We’re up here trying to do the best job that we can do. … I’m concerned that the neighborhoods come every time in opposition to development.”
He said neighbors should ask themselves whether they would rather have 35 town houses on the site.
Still, Thatcher was not entirely supportive of the Holy Spirit plan. He said administrative offices are “totally inappropriate” for the site. “This is an athletic complex that does not need an administrative building.”
Thatcher introduced a motion to recommend that the City Council approve the school’s plan with conditions, including a maximum of 400 bleacher seats, office space for athletic staff only, a 40-foot height restriction on the field house, and a limit of eight uses of the light and sound systems and band performances per year.
Donald Boyken seconded the motion, but Susan Mayzar voted against it, tipping the balance of favor against Holy Spirit’s plan and preventing the motion from passing.