By John Schaffner
The Atlanta Board of Education is finding its plan to locate a new North Atlanta High School at the northwest corner of Roswell Road and East Andrews Drive is drawing opposition.
The site appears to the board’s first choice for the school, and the board apparently is willing to use its condemnation powers to obtain the property.
The owner of the 30-acre site, which stretches from East Andrews to Peachtree Presbyterian Church, is the Sun Trust Bank and the John W. Grant Co. Trustees. The owners do not want to sell to the school system and, in fact, have another purchaser who has a contract on the property.
John W. Grant III, a Buckhead developer and landowner whose family name is attached to Grant Field at Georgia Tech and Grant Park, developed the site decades ago as the Paces Apartments.
Neighbors and Atlanta City Council members also object to the site, which is in a crowded area and across the street from several restaurants and bars.
School board members recently heard complaints from about 20 residents of Grant Estates/Tuxedo Park neighborhoods that back up to the proposed site. They don’t want the school there and vowed to fight it.
“No one who lives in Grant Estates wants this abutting our neighborhood,” 25-year resident Ellen Adair said. “We are a small neighborhood; but we have taken on all types of entities in the past and won.”
Both members of Atlanta City Council who represent Buckhead districts, Howard Shook in Dist. 7 and Yolanda Adrean in Dist. 8, where the new high school is likely to land, said they do not think the site at Roswell Road and East Andrews is ideal.
“That site has lots of problems,” Adrean said. “The school will likely be in my district, but no one from the school system has asked my opinion,” she added. She and Shook said, however, the City Council has no vote on where the school is located.
Shook said, “I am confident the school board will listen carefully to public sentiment about the proposed sites.”
Asked if he had some inside information about that, he responded, “possibly.”
Grant received the letter in July from a lawyer who specializes in condemnation and who represents Atlanta public schools. The letter said the system was exercising its right to enter the site and conduct soil sample studies, structural studies and review financials, among other items.
Charles Pursley, of Pursley, Lowery and Meeks law firm and a 30-year veteran condemnation lawyer who has been retained by Grant to represent his interests, said that sort of notice usually is a preliminary to an agency filing for condemnation of a property.
Furthermore, Pursley said, he knows lawyer Charles Ruffin, who wrote and signed the letter on behalf of the “Atlanta Independent School System.” Ruffin is a member of the Atlanta law firm of Baker, Donelson, Bearman, Caldwell and Berkowitz PC, which the Atlanta school system uses to handle condemnation cases.
Ruffin did not return a phone call seeking comment on the situation.
Pursley said that in his 30 years of dealing with these types of cases, it is “highly unusual” for an agency to involve outside condemnation legal specialists until a decision has been made to proceed with condemnation of the property. Normally, he said, very preliminary research is done by staff people at the agency, not outside lawyers.
At an Oct. 14 meeting of the Buckhead Council of Neighborhoods, which eight members of the Atlanta school board attended, school board members denied any knowledge of the letter sent to Grant. Former school board Chairwoman LaChandra Butler Burks did not attend the gathering.
Board members said they could not comment on the letter until they saw it and that they cannot comment on any school site selection discussions that take place in the board’s executive sessions.
The school board members also stated “no condemnation process can begin without a formal vote of the board and no such vote has been taken.”
“I think it is correct that they have not authorized a condemnation of the property,” Pursley said, but he said it is clear from the letter “the process has begun toward condemnation.”
Carl Westmoreland, a real estate specialty attorney with the Seyfarth Shaw Atlanta law firm, who along with Pursley was hired by Grant in July to represent his interests in this matter, confirmed the receipt of the letter in July.
“It is sitting on the desk right in front of me,” he said. “It seems to me the board would logically address the letter and, based on the public reaction, change direction,” he added.
North Buckhead resident Sally Silver said she had nine copies of the letter in sealed envelopes which were presented to each board member during its Oct. 18 meeting, “Now you have a copy of the letter,” she told board members. “Please read it and comment on it as you promised.”
Silver said the board members had no comment.
The issue became very public in the second week of October when Silver sent out an e-mail blast revealing the school board’s interest in purchasing the 3300 Roswell Road property, a 30-acre site across Andrews Drive from retail businesses and several of Buckhead’s West Village bars.
There are indications from several Buckhead community and political leaders that the school board’s second choice would be a site on Northside Parkway north of I-75. Shook said the I-75 site off Northside Parkway site has “many, many fewer problems.”