A massive, marathon meeting about Holy Spirit Catholic Church and Preparatory School’s controversial campus expansion plan April 24 was filled with tough questions and hopes of compromise — all backed by increasingly tough legal pressure from both sides. Some residents continue to say they might go to court over a 15-year-old legal agreement that could block part of the project, while Holy Spirit revealed that it photographed 170 pro-agreement yard signs with an eye to possibly suing opponents for “defamation.”

Despite such saber-rattling, both sides say there’s room to talk about the proposal – which includes a parking deck, church buildings and relocating the Lower School from its current home elsewhere in Sandy Springs – as it heads toward a May 7 filing deadline for a use permit at the city of Sandy Springs. The plan would expand the current church and Upper School campus at Mount Paran Road and Northside Drive in Buckhead onto an adjacent Sandy Springs site, with a parking deck, church buildings and a new Lower School relocated from Sandy Springs’ Long Island Drive. The school posts updates to the plan on its website here.

But debate among roughly 250 residents in the nearly four-hour meeting, held at the church, showed any new agreement has a big gap to bridge, with often emotional arguments pitting quality of life against quality of schooling. Many of the dozens of comments were personal anecdotes about the school and the neighborhood rather than addressing specifics of the proposal, though new details about disputed tree loss and traffic impacts emerged.

Among the dozens of members of the public speaking at the April 24 Holy Spirit meeting were, from left, longtime parishioner Jinny Keough; Sally Riker, president of the Mt. Paran-Northside Citizens Association; and former federal appeals court judge Stanley Birch. (John Ruch)

“I think it’s only logical and reasonable to have one location” for both campuses, said Jinny Keough, a 30-year church parishioner, who wore a “YES” button and – like many other supporters – the school color of green. “We just want people to talk, not yell.”

Debbie Guerra, CEO of the Northside/Chastain/Mt. Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association (or NPA), a group formed to negotiate with Holy Spirit, said the plan would “disrupt, on multiple levels, the tranquility of our protected, single-family neighborhood.”

While opponents often praised the church and school, none of them acknowledged that the plan had been significantly reduced in response to their concerns from a previous version last fall. And no supporter acknowledged any problems with the plan’s neighborhood impacts or the discarding of the old agreement.

Side-by-side comparisons of Holy Spirit Church and Preparatory School’s expansion proposals, with last year’s original version at left and the current version at right.

One opponent said supporters are clamoring to solve “first-world problems” of inconvenience; one supporter said neighbors are “a bunch of ostriches sticking their heads in the sand.” Several opponents suggested that school attendees are mostly outsiders; several supporters said they moved to Sandy Springs specifically because of Holy Spirit. People who said a religious school should stick to an old promise were dismissed as inflexible and obsessed with paperwork; supporters who said deals should be flexible were said to be setting a bad example for schoolchildren. Opponents’ characterization of the plan as “commercial” or “commercialization” was viewed an insulting by several supporters, who noted the school is a nonprofit that, in part, assists underprivileged students.

There was even a brief debate over whether tree-cutting violates Pope Francis’s encyclical about protecting the environment. (A science teacher said it’s complicated, but basically OK.)

A new illustration of part of the Holy Spirit expansion plan as presented at the April 24 meeting. The new structures are at the center-bottom, including a Lower School building and a parking garage with a play field atop it. The existing campus is at top and Mount Paran Road is to the right. (John Ruch)

But the biggest debate is about the old agreement, where residents approved the Upper School expansion in exchange for a written promise that the school would never grow further on the site or any adjacent property. Holy Spirit acknowledges that agreement could block the school part of its project, but says it is now invalid due to a legal technicality: the NPA failed to renew its annual registration paperwork with the state.

The NPA’s Stephen Phillips says Holy Spirit is wrong and the neighbors are willing to test it in court. “Listen, if we wanted to be in a lawsuit tomorrow, we could do that,” he said after the meeting, adding that the NPA is willing to negotiate further instead.

One of the yard signs that Holy Spirit says it considered suing residents over for alleged defamation. (File)

The NPA’s yard signs are touching a legal nerve as well. Dotting scores of local front yards for months, they read “Respect Our Neighborhood” and “Honor the Agreement,” along with the NPA’s website. One resident complained that last month he found the school’s public relations director photographing his yard sign and was told it was evidence-gathering for a possible lawsuit. Head of School Kyle Pietrantonio acknowledged that was true.

“At the advice of the board of directors, we were advised to document and photograph 170 or so signs and map the corresponding addresses for a potential suit [alleging] defamation against the institution,” Pietrantonio told the crowd. “At this time, we don’t plan to pursue that.”

Pietrantonio said in an interview that the defamation claim was based on the idea that the signs are false because “technically, there is no agreement… We felt like we could prove some institutional reputational damage.” But in a completely reverse move, Pietrantonio arranged for Phillips to make a special, full-length presentation about the agreement and claims of its validity from the podium during the community meeting.

“Unbelievable, isn’t it?” Phillips said afterward about Holy Spirit’s defamation lawsuit idea and photo-taking. “We were really shocked and dismayed about it.”

Pietrantonio also complained about harassing activity related to the signs. He said that on the night of Palm Sunday – an important Christian observance – someone planted a large number of the signs on the school’s field and on buses parked there. And recently, he said, some students wearing Holy Spirit gear at the Atlanta airport ran into someone who said they “better honor the agreement.”

Traffic pros and cons

Traffic and parking are big drivers of the campus expansion. Holy Spirit says church parking is already a problem and that having separate Lower and Upper Schools generates unnecessary traffic between them. The parking deck would be project number one. In combination with a new driveway on Mount Paran, a vehicle queue within the new deck, new turns lanes and traffic officers, Holy Spirit says overall traffic would be lower and flow better.

A crowd gathered at Holy Spirit to hear about the expansion plan and weigh in. (John Ruch)

Some top neighborhood leaders aren’t convinced. Sally Riker, president of the Mt. Paran-Northside Citizens Association, estimated the plan would add 200 vehicles to the campus total and do so in 30-minute crunch times in the morning and afternoon. She said the plan needs more mitigations, such as longer turn lanes.

Ronda Smith, president of the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, said it is likely the current Lower School would be sold to a different school that would generate its own traffic in the area. Likening it to the game of musical chairs, she said, “It will be musical schools in this region.”

Head of School Kyle Pietrantonio speaks to the crowd at the meeting. (John Ruch)

Tree loss

Holy Spirit’s plan is aimed at a 13-acre, largely wooded site. That has led to concerns about tree loss and related effects, such as stormwater runoff and flooding.

Holy Spirit’s arborist said the site has over 700 trees, of which roughly 92% are healthy. It remains unknown exactly how many would be removed, but it appears to be a large number, as consultants said the steeply sloped property would have to be heavily flattened for construction. Under state and local laws, an area around a stream on the property cannot be developed, so the trees there would remain, and Holy Spirit says that alone could meet the city’s requirement for 40% tree canopy coverage. Large new trees would be planted, and some other notable trees could be saved.

Resident Rand Knight, a trained forester who ran for U.S. Senate a decade ago, said that “not all canopy cover is created equal” and that simply mapping trees  and replacing them with  “planted ornamentals” doesn’t address “habitat destruction” and full ecological impacts.

A side discussion alleging another form of broken agreement involved the 2003 sale of the property to Holy Spirit by the late Ben Sims. Some residents said his family members and obituary indicate he essentially gave the land to the church on the condition that the woodland be preserved.

“I don’t care about his obituary,” replied Msg. Edward Dillon, the church’s pastor, who said he brokered the sale and that the price was about $170,000 an acre. Dillon said that Sims was, for lack of a better word, a “tree-hugger” who figured “if he sold to the parish, as long as I was around, we would preserve a lot of that” — particularly as opposed to it becoming another suburban subdivision, which is has not.

The disputed agreement

Behind the wiliness to negotiate is the legal leverage both sides see in the disputed 2003 agreement. On the NPA’s side, the agreement explicitly bars the school expansion. On Holy Spirit’s side is the claim that the agreement has lapsed – and in case was a deal with the school, not with the church, which could proceed with the parking deck on its own.

In his presentation, Phillips gave a history of how the agreement came from previous legal hardball. In January 1998, he said, the school – then called the Donnellan School – sought to come to the site with an expanded building and parking deck. After months of talks with residents, the school withdrew and filed with the city. More than 800 opponents gathered at a meeting and connected with Atlanta officials, who ultimately rejected the plan. The school then attempted to use a permit from a previous school who facility it had purchased; the city also rejected that. Only then did the school return to neighbors and seek the agreement signed in 2003 – five years later.

Stephen Phillips of the Northside/Chastain/Mt. Paran Neighborhood Preservation Association (NPA), at podium, speaks at the meeting about the legal agreement. Listening on are, from left, project architect Michael Boland, Head of School Kyle Pietrantonio, and NPA CEO Debbie Guerra. (John Ruch)

The new move to declare the agreement invalid on a technicality is “morally reprehensible,” said Stanley Birch, a local resident who is also a retired federal appeals court judge. “And here we stand in a church, and we’re talking about, ‘The agreement doesn’t matter because our reason is good.’”

Birch said that going to court could delay the project for years and cost a lot of money. Referring to Holy Spirit’s attorney, Carl Westmoreland, Birch said, “Now, Carl’s a very good lawyer, and if he’s having to fish this hard for a reason not to enforce the agreement, then the church isn’t in that good a spot.”

However, a resident who is also an attorney spoke in support of the project and said that the agreement’s permanent ban on school expansion wouldn’t stand up in court anyway, under legal principles barring eternal deals.

Meanwhile, Westmoreland had another legal pressure point to poke. He said to get an “independent opinion,” he asked a title insurance company to review the agreement and see whether it would insure the project; the company reportedly said the agreement wouldn’t stop it.

But Westmoreland said he is also pro-negotiation, noting that some people didn’t want any change and some people were more open. “I’d like to think the solution is somewhere in the middle,” he said after the meeting.

Phillips had a similar approach. “They’re passionate, some might say arrogant,” he said of Holy Spirit, but the NPA is willing to talk with them further.

John Ruch

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