A 15-year-old, apparently long-forgotten agreement to cap enrollment has thrown a curveball to the major expansion plan by Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Preparatory School. Holy Spirit representatives say they’re unsure whether the old agreement has legal teeth, but hope to cut a new deal with neighbors concerned about traffic, tree loss and the demolition of a 150-year-old house.

“I am hopeful we are able to bring something forward that actually solves problems and that some people, who currently say they are opposed to our plan, might actually see merit in it once all of the facts are known,” said Kyle Pietrantonio, Holy Spirit Prep’s head of school, in an email.

Resident Larry Lord, standing at right, questions officials about the enrollment cap agreement while Holy Spirit attorney Carl Westmoreland, standing at left, looks on at the Oct. 30 community meeting. (John Ruch)

Holy Spirit’s plan would build out its Buckhead campus at Northside Drive and Mount Paran Road — consisting of the church and Upper School — onto an adjacent, 13-acre wooded property in Sandy Springs. The biggest element of the plan is building a new home for the Lower School, currently located elsewhere in Sandy Springs.

At a packed community meeting held Oct. 30 at the Upper School library, several residents said the plan violates a 2003 neighborhood agreement that allowed the Buckhead campus to be built. Mount Paran resident Larry Lord said he worked on the agreement and that it capped enrollment on the Buckhead site “or any adjacent property. That’s a real critical piece in this whole situation.”

That claim appeared to take Holy Spirit officials by surprise, as they said they either never heard of the agreement or did not remember that part of it. Carl Westmoreland, Holy Spirit’s zoning attorney, later said the claim was “a little bit out of the blue” and that he first saw the agreement when the Reporter, which obtained a copy from the city of Atlanta, sent it to him.

The agreement is a list of conditions that the city of Atlanta attached to its approval of a special use permit that allowed the Upper School, then called the Donnellan School, to be built. It has several detailed provisions relating to the school’s size, location of buildings, parking and general operations.

It also limits the school to grades 6 through 12 with a total enrollment of 320 students, in strong language.

“There shall be no further expansion of the student population on this or any other contiguous site,” the condition reads in part. “The Donnellan School specifically agrees to cap the total student population at 320 students and to prohibit any future expansion of the student body, ever, on this site, or any contiguous property.”

The new Lower School would bring 400 or more additional students to the site for an expected enrollment “under 750,” according to Holy Spirit.

A section of a 2003 agreement, made conditions of a special use permit by the city of Atlanta, that limits Holy Spirit’s school enrollment on the Buckhead campus or contiguous property.

The conditions also say that the school will not seek any changes to the provisions without the prior written approval of the president of the “Northside/Chastain/Mt. Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association.”

Westmoreland said it’s unclear whether those conditions have any real effect on Holy Spirit’s plans, which involve expanding into another city. “I’m not exactly sure how to interpret that,” he said, because in general, a city can’t enforce its zoning ordinances in a different jurisdiction.

Another issue is whether the agreement also existed as a separate, signed deal between the church and the neighbors, as some residents claimed, which they could file suit over today. Westmoreland said he has seen no evidence of that separate agreement existing.

But Westmoreland said his advice to Holy Spirit is not to focus on the past conditions, and instead meet with neighbors and “work out a new agreement going forward.”

Pietrantonio, the head of school, echoed Westmoreland’s approach, saying in an email it’s a “long process” and that the results of traffic studies have yet to come in.

“Of course, there are questions about the effect of those conditions within the special use permit on the other parcel, which is church property and now part of the city of Sandy Springs,” Pietrantonio said in an email. But he added that Holy Spirit “began this project one step at a time and I don’t want to get ahead of ourselves.”

The plan

Holy Spirit says its expansion is a 20-year master plan, not something that would happen all at once. It is collecting public comments about the plan at campusplan@holyspiritprep.org and maintaining a question-and-answer page on its website at holyspiritprep.org.

Holy Spirit Prep was founded in 1996 at what is still its Lower School campus on Sandy Springs’ Long Island Drive. Holy Spirit wants to sell its Long Island campus and build a new Lower School complex on the site adjacent to the Buckhead campus. Several facilities to serve the church, including a rectory, are also planned. No changes are proposed to the existing Buckhead campus.

The following is the proposed new construction by type of use, according to Holy Spirit officials and plans filed with the city:

Shared Use

■ A parking deck, three stories tall with 250 spaces

■ A roughly 15-space surface parking area with a roundabout, as well as a new driveway opening onto Mount Paran Road

Lower School use

■ A private school classroom building, two stories and 50,000 square feet

■ A school recreation center, two stories and 50,000 square feet

■ A sports field

Church use

■ Two church school classroom buildings, each two stories tall and 20,000 square feet; these would be used for “youth ministry” or other programs to be determined

■ A new rectory, two stories tall and 12,000 square feet in size; would serve as a home for retired priests

The construction phasing remains unclear and dependent on fundraising. However, officials said that the parking garage is the most pressing need for the church and they would like to see it built in one or two years. The Lower School relocation is also high on the list, dependent on a successful sale of the Long Island campus.

Kyle Pietrantonio, head of school at Holy Spirit Prep, presents the plan during the Oct. 30 community meeting. (John Ruch)

Traffic management

Traffic management is a major discussion point. Holy Spirit officials claim the new driveway would have more than enough capacity for the relocated Lower School’s carpool traffic of about 110 vehicles a day. But larger questions about traffic flow could not be answered as the traffic study is still underway, with results expected in early November, in advance of the next community meeting.

Pietrantonio told the crowd at the meeting that “traffic is top of mind for all of us … We want to try to come up with a plan that actually helps traffic on Mount Paran.” He said Holy Spirit would be willing to bring in police officers to direct traffic or other new measures if needed.

In the current concept, residents questioned placing the new driveway on Mount Paran Road and the lack of sidewalks or crosswalks, among other factors.

He tried to reassure the crowd by saying a traffic study had been underway for months. But neighbors only recently found out about the plan. Several attendees said with the expansion possibly headed to the Sandy Springs Planning Commission as soon as January, they want more time to mull over the major neighborhood change. The ability of Buckhead residents to influence a Sandy Springs project was also a concern.

Natural and historic resources

Tree loss was strongly opposed by a couple of residents. Holy Spirit said in a fact sheet that it would save and replant as many trees as possible, and keep a 60-foot-wide buffer of woodland between the street and the new buildings. A plan to purchase parts of backyards along Jett Road appears related to maintaining buffer land.

One resident asked why the Lower School was not added to the Upper School in the form of additions to existing buildings instead of developing the woodland. Pietrantonio said that height limits in Atlanta’s zoning code prevented that.

Another loss would be a historic house at 844 Mount Paran. According to Fulton County property records, it dates to 1869, which would make it one of the oldest buildings left in Sandy Springs. Dillon suggested the house is about to fall down by itself, or at least has an interior in disrepair.

The scale of construction was another concern for some residents. The Holy Spirit site is a former quarry, and residents say that previous construction has required blasting of rock for long periods.

John Ruch

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