Conditional Use Permit for St Martin’s Episcopal School (Former Star Towers)

At its May 21st meeting, Doraville’s city council voted in favor of granting a conditional use permit allowing St Martin’s Episcopal School to take three parcels of land along Stewart Road and to use them for athletic fields for their students. These properties currently house several vacant buildings (including “Star Towers”) and have been an eyesore for at least 10 years. I’m excited that we’ll be seeing a transformation of this area into active sports fields and well-maintained green space.

I spoke with many people who were in favor of this development, but there was also some vocal opposition to  this development – especially from people who live in the neighborhood that directly abuts the property. Opponents are primarily concerned about nuisance sound from a loudspeaker system at the side of the property closest to Buford Highway, as well as increased parking and traffic on Stewart Road.

  • To mitigate the sound concerns, council limited use of the loudspeaker at the soccer field to the hours of 9am – 9pm on weekdays and 10am – 9pm on weekends.
  • Traffic concerns are legitimate, but right turns onto Stewart will be prohibited from the property, which is a good start to addressing those concerns. The exit will be designed in a way that will hopefully reduce the likelihood that people try to make right turns there.
  • The parking for the site meets the city’s zoning requirements. I don’t think this could be used as a reason to deny an application.  

I was one of the 5 council members who voted in favor of this conditional use. I voted this way, because I think these sports fields will have economic and social benefits for the city. Specifically:

  • Cleaning up the blight on Stewart should encourage nearby landowners to improve their own properties. I also believe removing this eyesore will increase the property values of surrounding parcels and also raise the overall tax digest for the city. .
  • This is a use that will bring more people with money to spend (parents of children in private school) to Doraville. I’m hoping they will spend their money in our town on the way to or after a game.
  • The school seems to be willing to partner with the city on allowing us to use their venue for certain events – it also is providing a pocket park and will be preserving green space, which I think is positive for the community. 

I heard a few other negative comments about the proposal, which I’ll address below:

  • “This development will remove about $25,000 in annual property taxes from the tax digest” (because it’s owned by a church).

Federal law prohibits discriminating against religious institutions based on whether or not they’ll pay property taxes.  This was not an argument that I could consider even if I agreed with it.

I will say that the overall drag that these lots have had on property values up and down Stewart and Buford Highway probably far outweighs the $25,000 a year that they have been bringing in as vacant eyesores. After the improvements, I believe that we will see a broad increase in property values that far exceeds the value of $25,000 a year.

  • “Our community won’t benefit from this field, because it’s not open to the public.”

I think there are plenty of ways that our community will benefit from having an actively engaged landowner controlling these properties. The school has stated that they are willing to work with the city on allowing some local use of the facilities, based on availability within their schedule. They are maintaining a 40’ buffer between their property and the homes on Stewart Court the that will maintain much of the existing tree canopy there. They also agreed to creation of a pocket park on Stewart Road, which is mainly going to benefit people who live in that immediate vicinity.

I think there is actually quite a lot of general public benefit being offered here – certainly more than we’d see in most developments that might have happened at this location.

  • “Money was already spent to demolish these buildings.”

I cannot speak to anything a council 4 or 6 years ago may have voted for and then did not follow through on. As far as I know, nothing has been paid for demolition of Star Towers by Doraville, nor is anything budgeted for this.  

  • “We should have delayed this vote.”

I believe that a lot of consideration was given to this matter. This development came before the planning commission twice: it was first presented to them at their April 12th meeting, and they recommended we vote “yes” on it at their May 2nd meeting. We then held the council meeting 19 days later. There was a lot of time for people to speak at public meetings and otherwise advocate for and against.  I don’t think delaying the vote would have added anything to the process.

  • “We should build housing on those lots.”

I think there was a proposal to build town homes here a while back, and it was sunk by concerns about parking, traffic, etc.

I imagine that any builders that would have wanted to build housing here would want to put in multi-family housing, which would have a much larger impact on the surrounding neighborhood’s traffic than the sports fields would.

I believe I am protecting the interests of the neighborhood by approving this less intense use.

  • “Approval of this project was a done deal before the public council meeting”

I can only speak for myself, but no one told me how to vote, nor was I sure what other council members were going to do. In fact, I was actively waiting for the open meeting to hear the public’s comments, as well as to see what conditions the school might be willing to agree to. There are people who felt strongly on both sides of this issue, and I heard from many of them. I believe that I gave full consideration to all sides, and believe that other council members did as well. In the end, I did what I thought was best for the city, based on the knowledge that I had.

This was not an easy decision, or one I took lightly. As a member of city council, I can’t comment on a case before I’ve considered it, which is why I remained silent while someone was spreading the untrue rumor that “the fix is in.”  I don’t expect people who disagree with my vote to be happy with the outcome, but I want everyone to understand my rationale for that vote and to understand that I did give full consideration to all sides.   

View the video from the meeting where this vote took place here. 

Read the agenda packet from this meeting here.