The Atlanta Neighborhood Planning Unit B zoning committee has issued a non-binding opinion favoring a Buckhead church in its fight with neighbors over its plans to build a six-priest rectory on residential property nearby.
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 build the rectory at a house at 136 W. Wesley Road. It will include both the 5,000-square-foot home already on the nearly 1-acre property and a 2,987-square-foot addition. Construction on the project started the week of June 9.
Mitchell, a lawyer who also lives next door to the home, 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 regarding the issuance of a building permit, arguing the church did not follow city zoning ordinances when it applied for the permit.
In its monthly meeting Tuesday at the Cathedral of St. Philip, the committee gave a recommendation back to NPU B that the church did follow city zoning ordinances in its applications to build the rectory. The committee, which was asked by the city to comment on the appeal, does not have the power to vote on zoning cases but can make comments about applications or appeals.
“The basis of the appeal was they had several issues they were contenting with,” said Bill Murray, the zoning committee chairman. “NPU B focused on one issue: was the property used as a residence or an accessory structure to the church? But it is being solely used as a residence for the priests. That’s our opinion. We did not vote to support or deny the appeal. It was our opinion that it was a residence and did meet the zoning codes and ordinances.
“We decided that as a residence meeting all the requirements, a special use permit was not required. There are plenty of other churches around Buckhead that use residential properties for residential purposes. It was not a unique situation.”
Murray said no action on the issue will be taken at this Tuesday’s NPU B board meeting, but added he will tell the board that the committee issued an opinion on the rectory. The appeal, which will continue to go through the city’s zoning process, next will be heard during the city’s board of zoning adjustment meeting Aug. 14.
Kathie Zickert, the lawyer representing the archdiocese and the church, said she was happy with the committee’s opinion.
“What pleased me the most is it was very well discussed,” she said. "The land-use committee showed a great deal of understanding of what the zoning ordinance says and how family is defined and about how many people can live together in a home. You can’t distinguish between an unrelated group of six individuals who have the right to live together under the zoning code and a group of six priests who have the right to live together under the zoning code.
“One of the NPU B zoning committee members says six of the employees of a nearby restaurant live in a home in her neighborhood and they’re unrelated. That’s something the restaurant did in very close proximity of the restaurant for morale, I guess.”
Hilliard said he was disappointed with the committee’s opinion and is now focused on the board of zoning adjustment meeting.
“It’s tricky because this is an appeal of an issuance of a building permit on legal grounds,” he said. “We go to the zoning committee for information and want to respect their side and their opinion, but their analysis is not the same as what the board of zoning adjustment will have to consider. Obviously it would be better if the entire neighborhood was together on this.
"From all accounts I know people living within close proximity of the property are against [the rectory]. We had probably 30 people in opposition to the rectory [at last week’s meeting]. I wish the [NPU] board would support their neighborhood, but I’m much more focused on helping the board of zoning adjustment that the legal basis of the appeal is valid.”
Hilliard also said he was concerned zoning committee member Bob Connelly, who submitted the application for the building permit, which is subject of the appeal, did not recuse himself from giving his opinion on the issue.
“People are very concerned about the opinion of the zoning committee, but we are equally concerned about the lack of bias in the opinion,” Hilliard said, adding Connelly’s wife works for the church. “When you’re weighing in on something you have ownership of, it’s hard to be unbiased.”
Neighbors opposing the rectory have started an online petition, addressed to the city of Atlanta, at http://chn.ge/1m5ghMB. As of Monday morning it had 100 signatures.