A graphic of the two VaHi subdivisions exploring an historic district overlay.

By Collin Kelley
INtown Editor

A grassroots committee of residents is exploring the pros and cons of an historic district designation for two subdivisions in the Virginia-Highland neighborhood.

The two subdivisions – Adair Park (established 1914) and the F.A. Ames Property/Virginia Highlands (establishedc1922) –include just over 300 homes. The aim is to preserve the character of the communities, which includes homes in the Tudor, Craftsman, Four Square and American Small House style.

Although the city enacted tougher zoning ordinances in 2008, those new laws deal with scale and height. Teardowns are still prevalent and new homes constructed that don’t reflect the character of existing homes.

Lola Carlisle, who co-authored the Virginia-Highland book in Arcadia Publishing’s Images of America series, is one of the residents spearheading the historic district movement. She said in a recent interview that a historic overlay has been considered for years, but never brought to a vote.

Carlisle has been involved in other efforts dating back nearly a decade. During one of those efforts, a survey was sent to all residents of Virginia-Highland by a subcommittee of the Virginia Highland Civic Association (VHCA) to gauge interest in a historic district designation.

“Since the Atlanta Urban Design Commission never actively seeks out historic designations, the efforts have been at the grassroots level,” Carlisle said. “At that time, we were looking at 2,600 structures – the entire community.”

However, the economic crash put discussions on the backburner and the idea of a historic district was shelved.

“There wasn’t an appetite for spending money at the time,” Carlisle recalled. “The VHCA had just spent a significant amount of money on a neighborhood commercial zoning effort and bought the property that became New Highland Park.”

Earlier this year, fresh discussions began among residents in the two subdivisions and another grassroots committee was formed. A series of ongoing “street level” meetings with residents is ongoing with two more planned for Dec. 5 and Dec. 11 at 7 p.m. at The Church of our Saviour. Although the committee isn’t part of the VHCA, Carlisle said if there is enough interest, she hopes it might, once again, become a subcommittee of the organization.

“These meetings are to hear residents’ feelings, concerns and fears,” Carlisle said. “It’s not our intention to pursue this if the residents and owners in the contemplated area don’t support it.”

In response to the committee’s exploration work, a group of residents opposed to the idea of the historic district overlay have created a petition on Change.org. Calling themselves Property Rights for Owners in Virginia Highland (or P.R.O. VaHi), the residents behind the petition said an overlay district would place limitations on homeowners rights to improve their properties and divide the community.

Resident Brian Kish created the petition and said there is concern that an overlay is an attempt to impose style limits and control the property of other residents.

“We didn’t ask for the overlay and now we feel like we need to fight against it,” Kish said.

Kish said he understood there was a fear of so-called “McMansions” coming in and destroying the character of neighborhoods, but he said there was a way to control the size and scale with existing ordinances.

“I think we can have homes that meet the zoning laws, but not impose stylistic limitations,” Kish commented. “We don’t want the level of detail about windows and front doors dictated to us.”

And while the petition might seem adversarial, Kish said he’s attended the street level meetings and there has been open and honest discussion.

“We all love the neighborhood and want what’s best,” Kish said.

Collin Kelley

Collin Kelley has been the editor of Atlanta Intown for two decades and has been a journalist and freelance writer for 35 years. He’s also an award-winning poet and novelist.