Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School and local historians are at odds over whether the Sandy Springs private school’s $4 million expansion inadvertently damaged an old grave.
But both sides agree that the city of Sandy Springs should establish a review board that would investigate the impact of projects on possible historic sites. Currently, city officials have no plans to form one, but Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny thinks the city should. She said the idea was suggested as part of a comprehensive land-use study in 2007.
“I think it’s a great idea,” Meinzen McEnerny said.
Clarke Otten, president of the Sandy Springs Historic Preservation Society and a recent lecturer at a city history series, is using the dispute with Holy Innocents’ to highlight the need for a historic review process for developers. He has informed Holy Innocents’ officials that he believes the site at 905 Mt. Vernon Highway NW could contain a grave.
The property is located next to the Crossroads Cemetery, adjacent to Crossroads Atlanta Primitive Baptist Church, though the church’s pastor, Loyd Blair, said the cemetery is not technically part of the church. Otten said the marked graves at the cemetery date back to the early 1870s. Contractors for the school are turning a mansion on the property into administrative offices, and making other site improvements.
Otten believes bricks placed on the project site near the adjacent parking lot resemble part of a “box crypt,” and are possibly connected with the nearby cemetery.
Kimberly Brigance, director of historic resources and programs for Heritage Sandy Springs, said the nonprofit group has documents showing that the cemetery extends onto property now owned by Holy Innocents’. “A deed of sale indicates the cemetery does extend 15 feet past where the current gate is … and goes on to the [Holy Innocents’] property,” Brigance said.
She said the city and Holy Innocents’ did not ask Heritage for information concerning the site.
Otten said the location of what he suspects is a brick box crypt is within 25 feet of the cemetery. In Sandy Springs, the city has an ordinance establishing a buffer zone, prohibiting development within 25 feet of graveyards. City spokeswoman Sharon Kraun said the alleged box crypt site is farther away than 25 feet. “We have checked and double-checked,” Kraun said.
But Holy Innocents’ could develop property within 25 feet of the cemetery, if it wanted. In 2009, the city granted Holy Innocents’ request to waive the requirement, eliminating the buffer zone.
Meinzen McEnerny said council members weren’t informed about the request to waive the cemetery buffer when it was presented to the council in 2009. Meeting minutes support her claim.
“If I had known during the presentation that we were waiving our cemetery ordinance buffer, I wouldn’t have supported it,” she said.
Ed Shoucair, co-owner of the Collaborative, which handles the city’s Community Development function, visited the project site in October. “Everything that was being done was to the letter of the law,” he said.
Otten said he has seen the brick box as recently as September and alleges the school’s contractor destroyed it. School officials say contractors haven’t performed any grading or construction work on the site. But the site’s former owner, Norman Jones, said he built the box to hold his trash cans and believes the school’s contractor removed it.
“The school leveled the area,” Jones said. “They took that down.”
Jim Griffin, business manager for the school, said the fence around the disputed site is precautionary. “We don’t want to do anything that can be refuted,” he said.
Griffin and Frederick Betts, associate head of the school, said there currently are no plans to do any further investigation, unless new evidence comes to light.
Jones said he used Civil War-era bricks to build a brick box on that spot to hold garbage cans. He said when he bought the property, nothing existed on the spot except a tree and some grass.
“None of the surveys or documentation submitted indicated the presence of any structure that could be construed as having historical significance,” said Kraun, the city spokeswoman.
Kraun said the city and Holy Innocents’ have asked Heritage Sandy Springs for a copy of the deed. A copy is available on the Historic Preservation society’s website, http://sshps.org/.
The disputed area is fenced off. When a reporter visited the site on Nov. 21, no brick box was visible.
Bryan Tucker, a deputy state archaeologist with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources’ Historic Preservation Division, said his office has no jurisdiction over the project because it is on private property. His office would not have the authority to investigate the matter further, he said. He said there are rules governing how property owners should handle grave sites.
“They cannot move crypts without a permit. Nobody is allowed to wantonly and maliciously destroy a grave,” Tucker said.
Otten, who owns a chain of automotive repair shops and is working on a book about Sandy Springs history, said he cannot definitively prove that a grave exists on the site. But he has strong suspicions.
“It smells like a grave, looks like a grave, and probably is a grave,” he said. “I can’t prove it.”
Griffin and Betts said throughout the purchase of the property and permitting of the project, there was no mention of a grave. When asked about Heritage Sandy Springs’ claims, Betts said in a statement that during the project’s permitting process no one had presented any evidence the site had any historic structures.
“School officials would be willing to consider any documentation that sheds new light on the area under question,” Betts said, asking that the public avoid the active construction site.
Otten said he does not want to continue to push the issue of whether the fenced area is or isn’t a grave.
“It’s not my intention to continue to stir the pot over this particular grave,” Otten said. “I want to agitate until we get a historic review board in Sandy Springs.”
Betts said that’s a worthy goal.
“That’s one of the things he and I could find common ground on,” Betts said.
Brigance said a review board is “certainly something we would welcome.”