A battle between a Buckhead neighborhood and a nearby church that has been brewing for two years is coming to a head.
A group of three families in Buckhead’s Peachtree Heights West community, led by Wright Mitchell, is fighting the Cathedral of Christ the King in Buckhead and the Smyrna-based Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Atlanta, the church’s parent organization, over the archdiocese’s plans to add on a six-priest rectory to a house at 136 W. Wesley Road.
Mitchell, a lawyer who also lives next door to the property, and another attorney, Hakim Hilliard, filed an appeal June 20 with the city of Atlanta Office of Planning to seek a stop work order on the project. The appeal likely won’t be heard until the Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit B’s Aug. 5 board meeting, and will go through the city’s zoning process from there.
The nearly 1-acre residential property had housed the archdiocese’s archbishop, Wilton Gregory, for decades, but two years ago it announced plans to move him to another home and relocate the church’s rectory from its campus nearby on Peachtree Road to this former residence.
“The church and [its] school are bursting out of the seams and need the space,” said Kathy Zickert, the attorney representing both the archdiocese and the church. “I want to point out that it’s not unusual. The vast majority of [the archdiocese’s] priests live in single-family homes, not on [their churches’] campuses.”
The rectory will include both the 5,000-square-foot home already on the property and a 2,987-square-foot addition. Construction on the project started the week of June 9.
The neighborhood is zoned as R2A (single-family residential), and Mitchell said the rectory is zoned for R3 (single-family residential with some exceptions). He said the archdiocese should have applied for a special-use permit to build the rectory there before starting construction.
Zickert said the rectory is following all city zoning codes.
“The surveyor who platted the property thought it was zoned R3,” she said. “It is not; it is zoned R2A. But the city was fully aware that it was R2A, as evidenced by the fact that the building permit itself states that it was for an R2A property. And the plans fully comply with R2A standards.”
Mitchell said many of the neighborhood’s residents also object to the rectory plans and have helped pay the legal fees.
“The archdiocese underrepresented the cost of the project and listed the zoning incorrectly,” he said. “The archdiocese showed the Peachtree Heights West Civic Association a set of preliminary plans in 2012 and the president of the Civic Association [Buff Quillan] pointed out that the zoning was listed wrong and asked the archdiocese to correct the error, but they never did so.
“Significantly, the zoning that the archdiocese incorrectly listed on the plans and submitted to the city does not require a special-use permit for a church rectory.”
Zickert said the archdiocese used the city’s formula to estimate the project’s cost.
“The city has a formula which essentially is premised upon a $100-per-square-foot cost, which is in turn multiplied by some small fraction. That’s how we calculated the permit fees,” she said.
Zickert said the city issued the archdiocese the building permit in January and filed a form with the city in March to switch contractors. She also said the archdiocese has followed all city laws in its plans for the rectory.
“There are just as many neighbors in the community who are in support of us,” Zickert said. “You will find that those who are against it are a vocal minority. We have owned that property since 1966.”
She said there has been some misinformation about the rectory spread throughout the neighborhood.
When asked if the archdiocese or the church misled the city or the public in the plans it presented, she said that was “absolute nonsense.”
“We’ve been meeting with Wright since 2012,” Zickert said. “He was aware of the plans. The city has refused to accept his interpretation. He initially said it was a dormitory and needed a special-use permit. Neither contention is correct. The city has approved our plans and we are totally right to do this. Up to six single unrelated individuals can live in any single-family home [in Atlanta].”
According to city law, Mitchell said, one is supposed to post an issuance of building permit sign on a construction site within 24 hours of getting the permit and leave it up for 30 days before construction. He said the archdiocese didn’t post its sign until June 23 and has sworn statements from four residents saying so.
“There was no legal avenue to do anything until a building permit was issued,” Mitchell said, explaining why the residents only recently filed the appeal. “Because they never notified the neighborhood of the issuance of a building permit by posting the required sign, the neighborhood did not know of the right to appeal.”
Zickert said the archdiocese followed protocol in posting the sign.
“The sign was posted on Jan. 14, the day after the building permit was issued,” she said. “We reviewed the fully permitted plan with Wright on March 20. For him to claim ignorance of the issued building permit is at best disingenuous. And affidavits [which Mitchell said the archdiocese should have filed] are no longer required and haven’t been for a while. We weren’t even given that form to fill out.”
Zickert said the residents against the rectory are free to express their opinion but “a great deal of misinformation has been spread to make the issue worse than it already was.”
“I think people were upset about something that really wasn’t happening to begin with,” she said. “To those who don’t want to live with six priests, I’m sorry, but it’s the law. And if you wanted to live with five other people or if I wanted to live with five other people, we have that right. No church business is being conducted here.”