Residents fill the Dec. 17 Planning Commission meeting at Sandy Springs City Hall during the hearing of the Galloway School's athletic facilities proposal. (Photo John Ruch)
Residents fill the Dec. 17 Planning Commission meeting at Sandy Springs City Hall during the hearing of the Galloway School’s athletic facilities proposal. (Photo John Ruch)

The Galloway School’s sports field debate came to the Sandy Springs Planning Commission Dec. 17 and down boiled down to the letter of the law versus the neighborhood’s quality of life. The neighborhood prevailed, as the commission unanimously voted to recommend denial.

Commissioner Dave Nickels said the planning body is tasked to “uphold the mission of the city when it was founded, and that’s to uphold the quality of life and integrity of the neighborhoods…and this [plan] does not do that.” City planning staff had recommended denial as well.

The Buckhead private school’s plan for an athletic facility at the southern dead-end of High Point Road next goes to Sandy Springs City Council for a final vote. “That’s the only controlling vote,” Galloway attorney Sharon Gay noted in a post-meeting interview, indicating the school will wait and see how it fares there.

The hotly controversial plan drew a standing-room-only crowd of at least 130 people herded along the walls at the order of a fire inspector. Studies on two key issues—flooding and traffic—came into question in an unpredictable debate.

In one surprise, Gay ended up facing off with attorney Pete Hendricks, who joined the High Point Civic Association and the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods in opposing the plan. Hendricks is usually the one defending a controversial project against such groups—in fact, he did so for another project later in the same meeting.

Galloway says it has an urgent need for more athletic facilities that won’t fit on its Buckhead campus. Two students testified that they miss class time because of their long travels to “home” games on even more distant fields. The school has settled on the High Point Road site, which it is buying from former NFL football star Warrick Dunn. But the proposal requires a use permit and two variances: one for creating a new curb cut on a local street, and the other for violating a 50-foot residential buffer zone.

The property is along Nancy Creek and possible stormwater impacts are a big concern for residents devastated in 2009’s historic flooding and who report water standing as deep as 30 inches regularly on the proposed fields’ site. Hendricks said he was convinced to join the opposition when he walked the property in his knee-high turkey-hunting boots and found water too deep to wade through. But Gay said that a Galloway-commissioned water study shows the plan won’t increase flooding.

“I think the thing everybody struggles with is the idea of flooding,” Gay said, adding that “this matters to Galloway” for obvious reasons. She acknowledged that it’s “counterintuitive to say that making changes to the property, putting in this project, will not increase flooding.” But that’s what an engineering firm reported at a previous public meeting.

However, city engineer Gilbert Quinones said it’s too early in the process for the study to hold much water, because the plan could still change significantly if it moves from concept to construction blueprints. And he questioned the proposed inclusion of one runoff-filtering system, known as “bio-retention,” saying, “I don’t believe they can do bio-retention here.”

Game-related traffic is another concern. Galloway says most teams would come by bus, and commissioned a traffic study that found a significant amount of vehicle traffic already. But residents claimed the study was done on a day when an NBC crew happened to be filming a TV show in a local house. That unusual activity, Hendricks said, makes for study results that “at best are terribly skewed…[The report is] simply flawed. It is not, in fact, correct.”

But Gay said the study was actually conducted on a different day from the filming and from a house party that neighbors also blamed for a traffic blip. “We will run that to ground” and find out if traffic really was unusual on the study day, she said.

The commission’s decision came down to zoning versus the city’s Comprehensive Plan, a set of non-binding guidelines. The zoning allows for athletic facilities there. But the Comp Plan labels High Point a “protected neighborhood” to be preserved as a suburb, and suggests non-residential uses be allowed only if they are “serving the neighborhood.”

Gay, peppering her comments with references to the state constitution and “settled law,” argued that objective zoning trumps suggestive Comp Plan guidelines, and said that opening the fields to community use in off-hours serves the neighborhood. But most commissioners were unconvinced.

Nickels said that a use primarily for “a school in a different city 2-point-something miles away” is not serving the neighborhood.

Commissioner Susan Maziar, a High Point resident, had a similar opinion.

“I do not think the Galloway application or project would serve me or my neighborhood,” she said, “and I think that is the definition for the use permit.”

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.

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