Two private schools in Sandy Springs are experiencing growing pains as their plans for expansion meet opposition from their neighbors.
Both schools draw students from a wide area because of their religion-based approach to education: The Epstein School is aligned with Conservative Judaism, and Holy Spirit Preparatory School is under the auspices of the Roman Catholic Church.
The Epstein School bought several properties near its campus on Colewood Way in preparation for an expansion that would increase its capacity from 650 to 850 pupils. The proposal submitted to the city would include building renovations, a bigger parking lot, a relocated soccer field and other changes.
Neighbors have organized against Epstein, leading to a crowd of more than 150 people for the monthly Sandy Springs community zoning information meeting June 25, which discussed the school’s proposal.
The opposition to Epstein focuses on changes to a residential neighborhood and the additional traffic 200 more children would bring each morning and afternoon. The two-lane roads in the neighborhood become clogged during drop-off and pickup now, but Epstein officials say they are developing a busing plan and aiming to make better use of the expanded parking lot to curb the congestion.
“We are proud that we are proposing a plan that would benefit both the school and our neighbors,” Robert Franco, the president of the school, wrote in a letter published in the Sandy Springs Reporter’s July 11-24 issue.
Franco said many neighbors support Epstein’s proposal. He called opponents “a small but vocal group of activists.”
In the same issue of the newspaper, however, one opponent presented his side as a popular response from a neighborhood under assault. David Davis said that rather than expand, the school should reduce its footprint.
“If we permit the destruction of a historic residential Sandy Springs neighborhood for the benefit of a private school, no one’s neighborhood is safe from the bulldozer, regardless of zoning,” Davis wrote.
Under the land-use permit issued to Epstein in 1994, the school may have no more than 650 pupils. The school is going through the zoning process the next couple of months to get its plans and its larger student body approved by the City Council.
Epstein held meetings with neighbors and, Franco said, changed its plans in response. But another letter writer, Tom Johnson, said neighbors were frustrated in their efforts to get specific information and felt that the discussions did not represent bargaining in good faith.
Neighborhood discussions also have produced frustrations in the case of Holy Spirit, which is inside I-285 at Long Island Drive and Northside Drive.
The parochial school wants to build a sports complex on an 8-acre site parallel to the interstate between Long Island and Lake Forrest drives. The plans call for a full-size football/soccer field with lights, a sound system and bleachers for 400 people, as well as tennis courts, a lap pool and 150 parking spaces.
Opposition to the proposal led to one change: Instead of erecting a field house and a separate administrative building, Holy Spirit now wants to combine those uses into one building with 12 offices.
The Sandy Springs Design Review Board considered the proposal excessive for the neighborhood and recommended denial of the plan on a 3-1 vote July 8.
The Planning Commission held a heated hearing on the plan July 17 and could not come to a decision.
Neighbor Brad Skidmore complained that the Holy Spirit plan would “invade an area we call home with a lighted stadium and a sports complex that not only violates the quiet and pastoral nature of the area … but also the comprehensive land-use plan so painstakingly adopted by the city.”
School attorney Den Webb denied that the proposal violates the land-use plan and said the project would have minimal effects on the neighborhood, especially compared with other possible uses, such as office condominiums and town houses.
School President Gareth Genner said the lights would not shine beyond the field, and the sound system would be drowned out by the noise from I-285.
“These are highly advanced systems that cost a lot of money,” he said.
During the Holy Spirit hearing, Planning Commission Vice Chairman Wayne Thatcher expressed frustration with the recurring attitude of Sandy Springs residents toward the private schools in their midst.
“You folks that stand up here and say schools shouldn’t be in a neighborhood … where are you coming from?” he said. “I’m concerned that the neighborhoods come every time in opposition to development.”