Norcross debates bid to buy old church site

NORCROSS - In the second of three public hearings on the subject, Norcross officials Wednesday night heard from residents regarding the proposed purchase of 3.2 acres situated across from City Hall.

A church built in 1875 sits on the property, as well as a rectory and a 1970s addition to the sanctuary. The idea of purchasing this historic church and property first publicly emerged at the May 1 council meeting. The cost: $2 million initially, with an estimate from Clark Patterson Associates of an additional $1 million to renovate the exterior. The source: money from the penny sales tax.

Several residents objected to the idea of using the 131-year-old building for community and cultural arts center because the previous council had been leaning toward the idea of building a replica of the old Norcross schoolhouse for the same purpose.

Councilman Charlie Riehm presented a more thorough plan for the purchase than the one laid out May 1. Riehm said seating capacity is about 500 and existing classrooms can serve as community meeting rooms and a senior center. The structure also houses a catering kitchen and a basement hall.

Just as importantly, there are 64 parking spaces adjacent to the church that the city needs. The rectory where the church pastor and his wife live "is marvelous and is in walk-in condition right now" and could be used as a museum, Riehm said.

Councilman Michael Lovelady entered into a contract to buy the property, pending public approval and due diligence research, in March. The public hearings, Riehm and Lovelady said, are the council's attempt to adhere to the Jan. 3 real estate procurement policy adopted by the city. The policy says such transactions are to be carried out in the public eye rather than in closed executive sessions.

Another point that Riehm brought up Wednesday night was a letter dated Aug. 11, 2003, from then-city attorney Peter Boyce to Tom Fortner, the real estate agent representing the church property. In the letter, Boyce said, "The city is determined that it needs this property for public purposes and if negotiations fail, the city is prepared to proceed with condemnation."

According to Fortner, this threat of condemnation has hindered any attempts to sell the property after negotiations between the city and the church broke down.

Should the city decide not to go ahead with the purchase of the property, the threat of eminent domain will have to be withdrawn for Fortner to effectively market and sell the property. For this reason, according to Riehm and Lovelady, time is of the essence regarding this deal.

Norcross resident Rob Buck was the first to voice objections at the hearing.

"This purchase was denied on May 1, and we're here trying to breathe life into it again." He said Lovelady, who drove the effort to adopt the real estate procurement policy back in January, violated his own policies.

"This is our money, not the government's," Buck said. "I've not seen any professional studies or utility bills to back up the figures given by Mr. Riehm and Mr. Lovelady. I've seen no documentation showing the SPLOST payment schedule. I just don't believe there's enough money to pay for everything."

Buck suggested buying this property puts the city in the position of acting as a private developer, suggesting that what the council is doing is "tantamount to fraud."

Anne Webb, president of Save Historic Norcross, spoke in favor of the purchase from a preservation standpoint.

"The 1973 council who voted to tear down the old schoolhouse had no idea that we'd be talking about building a replica (30) years later," Webb said. "This is a preservation challenge to Norcross."

Several residents joined Buck in opposing the purchase, questioning the legality of the proceedings and the wisdom of the use of SPLOST funds for the purpose of buying and refurbishing an old church. Others were dismayed at the council's apparent ignoring of the popular recommendation to build a larger cultural arts center located where the old log cabin now stands.

Councilman David McLeroy said he agreed that the property would be beautiful greenspace and that the church is worth preserving. He also agreed the city needs the additional 65 parking spaces. He did caution other council members against using SPLOST funds for the purchase.

"I just think we'd be putting all our eggs in one basket," McLeroy said. "I'm not trying to stop this process. I just think we should slow down and do due diligence."

Those who favor the purchase cited historic preservation and a ready-made community and cultural arts center as distinct advantages. The purchase would allow the city to control the property and have input as to its ultimate use.

The third public hearing on the matter will be held at the June 5 City Council meeting.