By Jody Steinberg

Soccer fields and trees.

For now, these are the biggest obstacles the Marist School faces as it begins a years-long process of expanding school facilities and infrastructure – but not enrollment – as part of its Vision 2020 Strategic Plan, unveiled last summer.

The plan calls for a number of buildings to be replaced or enlarged to increase classroom, cafeteria, athletic and fine arts space, and the addition of a campanile to the chapel, making it the spiritual focal point of the campus.

Most of the new construction will occur on the existing footprint of the campus, which is concentrated on 21.7 acres south of Peachtree Creek – the only part of the school’s 78 acres that does not lie in a flood plain.

Since the plan made its debut, Marist has taken it to neighborhood associations to explain the plan and address concerns, explained Bob Fisher, Marist Director of Communications.

In spite of their proactive approach, objections to proposed changes north of Peachtree Creek have slowed approval of the private Catholic school’s Special Land Use Permit (SLUP) application, the first step in the journey to DeKalb County approval for any development.

Following a recommendation from the Community Council, Marist received a 60-day deferral from the Planning Commission to further address conflicts, including significant objections from the Cowan Family Ashford-Dunwoody YMCA over proposals that could impact access to the Y’s soccer fields.

“Those fields are used by thousands of kids each year, and they are our first concern,” said Gregg Blasingame, executive director and head coach of the nationally-ranked Concorde Fire soccer club, which shares the fields with the YMCA. “Trying to move through this particular maze quickly is asking too much.

“We want Marist to have what they need. We just want to make sure it doesn’t affect the way the kids play soccer.”

Marist owns dozens of acres north of Peachtree Creek, including a disused school building slated to be torn down, while the YMCA owns four soccer fields east of the building and another five acres west of it. The fields are closely intersected by an access road that runs from Ashford-Dunwoody Road to a small parking lot past the fields.

The YMCA has easement rights to the road, which is owned by Marist. This patchwork of property rights and easements is at the heart of the SLUP delay. Plans to eventually build a vehicular bridge across the creek, add parking on the north side, widen and extend the road to connect to the main campus have met strong objections from the YMCA, Concorde Fire and others who worry that the road could compromise safety, reduce parking and limit access to the fields.

Further complicating matters are Marist’s negotiations with neighbors, who prefer the trees buffering their back yards to the athletic fields and parking in the long-range plans. Blasingame, whose home on West Nancy Creek backs up to the area designated for a future athletic practice field, sees the issue from both sides north of the creek. He doesn’t object to having practice fields where he currently enjoys trees, but questions how Marist will protect his home from noise and light pollution. Will there be a public address system? If the school cuts down trees, what will they replace them with to provide a buffer for property owners?

A commitment to environmentally sound policies – including replacing large trees that might be cut down – is part of the ethos at Marist, said Fisher, adding that Marist is working diligently to resolve issues amicably with all of its neighbors, but the major parties have agreed to keep negotiations private until issues are resolved. The SLUP is scheduled for presentation to the Community Council, Planning Commission and BoC again in January.

Blasingame is confident that issues will be resolved, because all parties are working in good faith with similar goals. “Our first concern is the kids,” he said, “and we’re all in the business of serving kids.”

For details on the Marist Master Plan, go to; http://reporternewspapers.net/Articles-c-2009-06-25-165738.113118_Marist_unveils_campus_plan.html