Part of the Delmont Townhomes complex on Delmont Drive. (John Ruch)

A grassroots effort to save a tree from a controversial townhome project in Buckhead’s Garden Hills has jelled into an opposition group highlighting a lack of renters’ input on developments that are altering local housing affordability. A local state representative and a candidate for Atlanta City Council are among those supporting the group’s advocacy.

Hedgewood Homes and Silver Creek Redevelopment plan to demolish 20 of the 22-unit Delmont Townhomes at Delmont and Sheridan drives and replace it with 35 single-family homes. The plan has been controversial for traffic, affordability and other neighborhood impacts, which would include removing many old trees. The developers recently gained rezoning approval for the project and next are seeking variances for greatly reduced setbacks at an Aug. 5 City Board of Zoning Adjustment hearing.

The project heads to city review with conditional support from community organizations, anchored in a list of changes negotiated with the Garden Hills Civic Association. But neighbors like Elizabeth Gibson, an eight-year tenant of a complex across the street, say such groups are focused on homeowners, as is a city process that never notifies neighboring renters. Gibson says the 20 to 25 people in her group — many renters, some homeowners — are deeply concerned by the same developers proposing another project on Sheridan and possibly acquiring other local complexes, changing the entire neighborhood.

“There is a little bit of a disconnect here,” said Gibson. “The City takes into consideration the opinions of the Garden Hills Civic Association for these developments on streets where there’s a lot of rentals and condo developments, which are really different from single-family neighborhoods.” 

Of groups like the GHCA and Neighborhood Planning Unit B, Gibson says, “I think they think of most renters as short-term prospects and people who lower the property values.”

Democratic state Rep. Betsy Holland, a Garden Hills resident whose son attends the namesake elementary school across the street from the Delmont Townhomes, agrees with some of those concerns. She loaned her Zoom account to the opposition group to support its advocacy. 

Holland said she learned that tenants cannot be GHCA members and expressed concern that developer negotiations generally involve the executive committee, so even most members are not necessarily involved. Residents and officials with the neighboring Garden Hills Elementary and Atlanta International schools have complained about a lack of input as well.

“A lot of these people have lived there over a decade. This is their home,” Holland said. “… The default should be to look to the neighbors and residents who live here and make exceptions for developers after hearing their concerns, not the other way around. … The fact of the matter is, I think, voices have been taken away from average residents.”

GHCA president Clay Dixon could not be reached for comment, but NPU-B chair Nancy Bliwise said her group makes an effort to include everyone. Gibson and other concerned residents participated in an April NPU-B meeting where the Delmont project won conditional recommendation. The homeowners association at an adjacent condo at 55 Delmont was among those in support.

“NPU-B does not differentiate between renters and owners,” said Bliwise, and has representatives of a variety of housing types and associations on its board. She noted that the NPU’s “representative model” means that much resident communication is routed through civic associations.

“This presents a challenge since civic associations vary widely in how they are structured and how they address zoning issues,” said Bliwise. “In NPU-B meetings, we try to be sensitive to this variability and ask developers who they worked with and civic associations who attended meetings. And, of course, all NPU-B meetings are open and everyone is welcome so we are able to get additional information at our own meetings as well.”

The oppositions’ concerns about tree loss, loss of relatively affordable housing and other impacts are resonating outside the neighborhood as they circulated on Nextdoor and other social media. 

Among the new supporters attracted to the cause is Mike Russell, a candidate for Atlanta City Council president. Russell and his husband are renters, living in a Piedmont Heights apartment. Russell says he is also interested because of his opposition to the City’s proposed zoning changes about increasing density in single-family neighborhoods, on the premise of boosting affordability.

“I think this affects everybody in the city. We all claim that we love our trees and we’re a city in a forest, but right now these developers, 90% of their variances are approved,” said Russell. “… This is affordable housing that is being destroyed and replaced by McMansions. Why don’t people step up and say this is enough? This is affordable housing.” 

Holland says that the two developments proposed in the Delmont/Sheridan area, with sale prices estimated at over $1 million each, demonstrate that “density doesn’t always create affordability.” 

Debbie Skopczynski, chair of Neighborhood Planning Unit F, also got involved. Her NPU doesn’t represent Buckhead, instead focusing on such neighborhoods as Druid Hills, Morningside/Lenox and Virginia-Highland. She recently spoke to the opposition group about the zoning variances. Gibson says Skopczynski gave advice on some zoning ordinances that might be useful in a challenge. But Skopczynski says she just gave general guidance after a friend asked her to.

“I don’t have a dog in this fight,” said Skopczynski in an email. “NPU-F has had more variances than any other NPU in the city. It’s tough on groups to be effective in front of the BZA (or any board or commission) if you don’t know how things work.”

Don Donnelly, co-owner of Hedgewood Homes, did not respond to a comment request. But previously he has said the Delmont project would include a large green space and the planting of many large, new trees. His company negotiated 21 conditions with GHCA, including a limit on the maximum density, building sidewalks, and contributing to a traffic study if the neighborhood pays for one.

The townhome at 67 Delmont once owned by Nellyn Van Os and now by Atlanta International School. The townhome is now a separate property and Silver Creek Redevelopment will preserve the other unit in the building to spare both from demolition. (John Ruch)

The developers have been working on the Delmont Townhomes for years, and have run into major opposition before, but of a quieter sort. One resident, Nellyn Van Os, refused to sell her unit due to concerns about trees, housing affordability and love of the neighborhood. Silver Creek took her to court in 2018 to attempt to force a sale or partition of the property. Meanwhile, Atlanta International School, which has its own affordability concerns, attempted to buy the entire property; when that failed, AIS bought Van Os’s unit and allowed her to remain as a tenant. A court-approved deal last year requires the developers to leave AIS’s townhome and a neighboring unit standing with various improvements, and to build around it.

Gibson said she and other residents heard about Van Os’s situation, but found the details hard to follow and did not realize a big redevelopment was truly on the way. Official City zoning notices go to property owners, not renters. By the time they heard details, Gibson said, she and some other opponents were playing catch-up on a deal already handled in meetings with private or little-known subcommittees of the neighborhood associations before emerging at the NPU. While Gibson and others spoke out at that meeting, the developer had already made deals with the GHCA and the 55 Delmont HOA.

Over the Independence Day weekend, another local renter set up a spectacular protest display around an old oak tree on the Delmont property calling for it to be saved. The effort by that resident, who declined to comment, encouraged other opponents to network and sparked the formation of the group, which has been meeting regularly.

The display at the large tree at the Delmont Drive townhomes over the Independence Day weekend. (Special/Nellyn Van Os)

Donnelly said the tree is dying and can’t be saved. Gibson, who organized a 900-signature online petition for the tree, acknowledges he was telling the truth — the group hired an arborist who said the same thing. While that’s a “lost cause,” Gibson says, the group began focusing on the issue of the zoning variance that could actually affect the project. 

Gibson’s a technical writer for the Georgia Tech Research Institute and moved to Atlanta from San Francisco about 25 years ago because housing was expensive there. She said she long chose to rent rather than buy a home to avoid the commitment of maintenance, though now she would like to buy and can’t afford it in Atlanta. 

Gibson says she’s a long-term, responsible resident like anyone else but feels the process is skewed toward homeowner input. She says to homeowners living blocks away, a big luxury project might sound like a good way to raise their property values, while to immediate neighbors like her, it might mean getting priced out of their homes.

Gibson says homeowners, too, should be concerned about developers seeking to assemble multiple properties and change neighborhoods. “This is going to be you if you’re not careful, and do you really want this to happen?” she asks.

John Ruch

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