Massive project affiliated with Southern Baptist Convention roils Clarkston and accusations fly
This story has been updated.
By Catherine Harris, contributor
Renita Knight has lived for 18 years in what she considers her dream home – a two-bedroom, one-bath bungalow at the corner of Rowland Street and Indian Creek Drive in Clarkston.
“It is in perfect shape and doesn’t need a thing done to it,” she says.
She was not surprised when a representative from nearby Clarkston International Bible Church contacted her last February and inquired about buying the house. The church had owned the three houses across the street from her for years and had always been a good neighbor.
But she loves her home and was worried that they might want to tear it down. She also knew that she would be hard pressed to find housing of similar quality in today’s real estate market. She works part-time at a local thrift store and has a small entertainment business doing corporate events and children’s birthday parties as Miss Teacup the Clown.
“I don’t make a lot of money and there is no way I would be able to get a mortgage,” she explains. “I would have to get more than Clarkston value for the house because anything else I buy I would have to pay for with cash.”
She gave them a price, which they declined, she says, and she thought that was that – until the day a neighbor called to ask her about a drawing she’d seen.
“Do you know they want to put a soccer field on your house?” Knight says she was told. “I had no idea all of the other things they had planned.”
Clarkston has been roiled in recent weeks by the revelation that Clarkston International Bible Church, a diverse congregation with a 135-year history in the town, had sold its property to the North American Mission Board (NAMB) of the Southern Baptist Convention, which planned to convert the site into a massive outreach ministry hub – including not just a larger church worship space, but a sports complex, multiple retail shops, a medical clinic, new gymnasium, and temporary housing for Baptist mission workers.
Residents of nearby neighborhoods complain that details of the proposed $15 million, 8-acre site plan were buried in a December 2017 application to the city for a single conditional use permit to convert the church’s existing gym to a worship space.
“The supporting information with the application was like 20 pages long,” says Susan Hood, a Clarkston resident who has lived near the church for 24 years and is a retired city planner. “The first page was the application form, which just discussed the conversion of the church gym, then there was page after page of deeds and other documents – because they have to show that they own the property – and then after about 20 pages, at the end, was the site plan. You would have to have been like Sherlock Holmes to find that if you didn’t know to look for it.”
The plan contained much more than just a repurposed church gymnasium. It showed two new two-story multipurpose buildings and two additional single-story buildings (noted as “hub retail”) that would be constructed on the site of the old church building. Three church-owned lots formerly occupied by houses on the same block as the church buildings would be converted to a proposed 7,000 square foot thrift store, with adjacent parking lot, and two dorms designated as “missional housing.”
And, on a separate block just southwest of the church property (the block where Renita Knight lives), it showed plans for the construction of four sports fields, a playground, and a new gymnasium and indicated city abandonment and closure of the section of Hill Street between Rogers and Rowland Streets.
Almost no one in the neighborhood knew anything about the scope of the project, or even that one was in process, until the first houses started coming down in June, Hood says. Then neighbors started digging through videos of the previous council meetings and found the information and city leaders’ discussion of it in a work session from December of last year.
“Local city resident Chris Busing had been dropping hints about this project, but nobody believed him,” says Brian Medford, a 13-year Clarkston resident who lives a block and a half from the church. “But one day, riding my bicycle, I noticed the house next to the church was being stripped for demolition. That’s when I started digging into city records.”
It turns out, after closing on the sale of the church property in May of 2017, NAMB then purchased two more single-family homes on a separate city block, bringing the total combined property to almost eight acres in central Clarkston.
“I’ve said publicly that I support refugees and any program that helps refugees,” says Medford. “[But] previously, any developments in the city were publicly discussed at length and usually over a few months. We passed a tiny house ordinance and a rezoning request around the same time, each with lots of city communications. This project seems to have been kept quiet on the city end.”
With only one other building on the block not owned by the NAMB, Knight says she is worried about the future of her house. If the block is rezoned to a commercial use, it could mean higher taxes or a lower property value. And, she misses having neighbors she could call for help at night or on weekends.
Different people in the community have raised different concerns, says Hood, who worked for both the City of Atlanta and DeKalb County in urban planning positions. For her part, she is concerned the development will not have enough parking, and that the planned multipurpose buildings would seem to be larger than the 5,000 square foot cap allowed for under the zoning designation.
“I don’t think there were bad intentions on anyone’s part,” she says. “I think everyone really wants to do something good. I think the church’s intent is to build something good. But, when you are doing something this big, why not take the time to make sure it is going to be good for the whole community?”
Accusations of impropriety
Things came to a head at a heated city council meeting in June of this year with angry residents accusing city leaders of privately meeting with NAMB and deliberately concealing the planned redevelopment.
Clarkston Mayor Ted Terry says that while he has informally discussed the project with NAMB representatives, the development plans were and are in the early stages, and it would have been premature for the city to call a public meeting about it.
“Honestly, I have people all the time contact me with what sounds like these big plans, but that nothing ends up coming of it,” he says. “Pastor Trent [DeLoach] reached out to me in, I think, March of last year and said the North American Mission Board is interested in investing in Clarkston. It sounded good, but then I was like, let’s see what they come up with.”
The conditional use permit approved at the December meeting was only for the redevelopment of the church’s former gym into the new worship center, and is the only change that has been approved, he says.
The rest of it was just a general concept of what they would like to do, but not part of that application.
Construction of the other buildings on the church’s property along Church and Rowland Streets would be permitted under that area’s current zoning designation, neighborhood-commercial, Terry notes. But anything on the other side of Rowland Street, which is still zoned for single-family residential dwellings, would require a rezoning or variance of those properties and require several new rounds of public meetings.
“I think some people felt like it was already happening, because they saw the drawings,” he says. “I felt like I tried to do a good job of saying that, ‘No, nothing’s been approved. There’s still plenty of time for input.’ But I think some people just still did not believe it.”
Another point of contention is the absence of a published advance notice of the request for a conditional use permit for the church gym and the lack of a public hearing ahead of the council’s vote to approve.
“The reality is that we should have had a public hearing on the conditional use permit on the initial one for the gym,” says Clarkston City Council Member Jamie Carroll. “We did advertise a
public hearing on it but one wasn’t actually held. There was a public comment section in the
work session that day, but no one from public commented on it. But there should have been a public hearing at the council meeting and there wasn’t.”
Going forward, the city must wait to see what plans are brought forward and decide to approve them or not, he says. As for the houses the church owns, they can get permits to demolish them, if they want. But if they want to build anything other than single-family homes in the block between Rowland and Rogers, they will have to come back for city approval.
Plans on hold
Following the outcry at the city council meeting, NAMB decided to hold a community information and listening session in August to explain their project and hear resident concerns.
They have since agreed to revise their development plans and still come back to the community for more input.
“We have no interest in polarizing the community. We seek unity,” wrote David Melber, president of SEND Relief, the compassion ministry arm of the North American Mission Board, in a letter to the community dated August 11.
SEND Relief oversees the Clarkston project and part of its mission is to construct several other outreach efforts across the country.
The letter addresses several concerns raised by residents, including removal of several residential parcels from the local tax digest, tolerance for different religious and cultural practices in the community, and the lack of transparency in the development process.
In the letter, the agency commits to contributing a dollar amount equivalent to the lost property tax revenue for the parcels it purchased, and it promises to hold ongoing communication events to better include the community in the development plans.
At this point, there is no final site plan or rendering for the planned development that is ready for public dissemination, says Mike Ebert, the NAMB executive director for public relations.
“We are in the planning stages for the site. We are soliciting community input and listening to our neighbors,” he states. “That is the right next step to do this well. As a result, there are no comprehensive site plans, drawings or plans for local land use or zoning changes under discussion. All of that would be premature until we listen further to the community.”
The church at the center
At the center of the controversy is Clarkston International Bible Church, housed mostly in a stately, yet aging, brick complex that faces railroad tracks along Church Street. The church, founded as Clarkston Baptist Church in a single, one-room wooden building on that site in 1883, merged in 2004 with the Filipino International Baptist Church which gave it its current name.
The church also hosts five different international congregations who share the facilities, worshiping following their own traditions, and working together to serve the community, says Pastor Trent DeLoach.
Their work and worship will continue and be enhanced by the partnership with SEND Relief, which has already been supporting their outreach work in the community, DeLoach says. “We are still here and not going anywhere. That will not change.”
The church’s existing ministries of offering English language classes, youth programming, legal assistance, and furniture distribution to immigrant families is still ongoing as the property is redeveloped. The new facilities will allow them to offer even more avenues of assistance, and provide jobs, businesses and recreational facilities that will be open to the entire community.
“We see our investment as a way to further partner with the community and offer resources and assets that we hope will be valuable, long-term additions to everyone who lives in, work in and enjoys all that Clarkston has to offer,” adds Ebert.
Filling a community need
Mayor Terry feels that the relief hub has the potential to provide residents – both immigrants and those who have lived in Clarkston for decades with resources the city has not yet been able to support.
“One thing that I always hear from families – particularly families that live in our apartment complexes – is the need for more after school activities,” he says. “We have no community wide program for kids after school, and we have a lot of families in multifamily housing without access to playgrounds or recreational activities or things for their kids to do.”
His focus is on ensuring that whatever the church does with the property is consistent with the city’s long-term land usage plans. The city has done a lot of work to encourage sustainable development and improved pedestrian and bike access around Clarkston, which this development could also help foster.
One lesson he has learned over the past few months is that whatever decisions are made by the council will be informed by the input of as many citizens as possible.
“We are going to definitely have more meetings,” he notes. “There’s going to be a meeting about the meeting before the meeting. You can quote me on that.”
Writer Miranda Hawkins contributed to this story.