Two local historians say a dispute about whether a church on Mitchell Road is a Civil War relic provides an example of why the city should place more emphasis on historic preservation.
City Council members say they respect history but aren’t sure what the city can do and don’t know how many sites in the city are worth preserving.
Kimberly Brigance, director of historic resources at Heritage Sandy Springs, thinks the city should consider additional safeguards, such as an historic preservation ordinance adding extra legal protection to disputed sites. She noted examples of similar ordinances in Roswell and Cobb County.
Clarke Otten, founder of the Sandy Springs Historic Preservation Society, favors, at minimum, a board to review zoning applications to make sure they don’t threaten historic structures.
“Nothing is being done to preserve anything here,” Otten said.
City Councilman Gabriel Sterling said no one has approached the council recently asking members to consider the issue.
“There are already a lot of safeguards in place from federal and state laws for those things,” Sterling said. “I don’t think we need an additional layer of protections, but we should always be cognizant of [potential historic sites].”
In the Mitchell Road case, residents trying to prevent a dense residential development argue the St. James Anglican Church on the site might be historic. The property developer, Arrowhead Real Estate Partners, recently hired a consultant who concluded the property isn’t eligible for the National Register of Historic Places.
The developer wasn’t legally obligated to look into the matter. Additional protections could make such inquiries routine, Brigance and Otten say.
The two historians cited other cases where asking questions early in the process could have resolved disputes:
– In 2009, a public outcry resulted in City Council saving an early 1800s-era chimney at Overlook Park at Morgan Falls.
– In November 2011, Otten claimed Holy Innocents’ Episcopal School inadvertently damaged a “box crypt” during its expansion near the historic Crossroads Cemetery. School officials said their contractor did not destroy any crypt and at the time said no one provided evidence showing the site was historic or contained a grave.
Sandy Springs Community Development Director Angela Parker said while the city does not have a specific preservation ordinance, the city council can consider information about a property’s history when approving zoning changes.
A city planning document cited a lack of historic places as the main reason the city doesn’t have preservation ordinances or boards. The council in 2007 adopted the city’s 2027 Comprehensive Plan. The plan noted that while residents surveyed strongly favored a historic preservation ordinance, implementing one wasn’t considered practical.
“It was determined that the city has few remaining historic resources to justify pursuit of formal historic preservation programs or to integrate heritage tourism into economic development efforts,” the report says.
Brigance said an ordinance could also provide property owners tax breaks in addition to offering greater legal protections. Mark McDonald, President and CEO of the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation, said between 35 and 40 cities in Georgia have historic preservation laws on the books.
“I think a historic preservation ordinance is fundamentally a planning tool,” McDonald said. “It gives the public notice of buildings of historic importance.”
He said many successful developments incorporate both old historic structures and newer development.
Nancy Gadberry, executive director of Cobb Landmarks in Cobb County, said homeowners see the most benefit from historic preservation codes because they protect the look of neighborhoods. Merribel McKeever, assistant historic site coordinator with the Smith Family Plantation in Roswell also helped the city update its guidelines for its historic district.
“The ordinance is really good for protecting historic fabric because a lot more is involved than just the buildings themselves,” McKeever said. “It’s the context they convey.”
Council members were wary of any kind of sweeping ordinance.
“I don’t see it as being a front and center issue for our city,” Councilman Chip Collins said. “I do think it’s something to be mindful of.”
City Councilwoman Dianne Fries said the council recently approved pre-site inspections for development projects and said that might help identify potential issues.
Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny said she’d be willing to consider a request by a group of homeowners but didn’t favor an ordinance covering the whole city.
“I just don’t see we have the need in our community to do a top-down ordinance,” she said.