Historic property sale sparks Decatur’s interest

The+Moore+Chapel+was+built+in+1906+and+is+not+protected+by+Georgia%27s+historic+registry.+Photo+by+Taylor+Stephenson

The Moore Chapel was built in 1906 and is not protected by Georgia's historic registry. Photo by Taylor Stephenson

At this year’s State of the City address, Mayor Patti Garrett announced Decatur’s desire to buy the United Methodist Children’s Home (UMCH) campus.

“I’m extremely pleased to announce tonight that we are in conversation with the UMCH about the site,” she said on Jan. 24.

The UMCH has occupied the 77-acre property for 143 years. The property started as a farm and orphanage. In the 1970s, Georgia regulations began to deemphasize orphanages and favor foster care. In 2010, the orphanage closed, and since then, the number of residents has decreased by almost half.

The home’s Board of Trustees voted to sell the property on Jan. 17, despite community opposition including a children’s home alumni meeting on Jan. 13, a protest on Jan. 14 and an online petition with over 500 signatures.

Senior Happy Herold protested with friends on Jan. 14. They encouraged passerby to sign the petition against the sale and received “hundreds of signatures.” Photo courtesy of Keson Graham

John Cerniglia, the Vice President of Development for the UMCH, does not feel this pushback reflects greater community opinion.

“A couple local people have gotten upset, but most of the feedback we’ve received has been positive,” Cerniglia said.

His conclusion comes from a consideration of 12 stakeholder groups. Cerniglia said alumni and neighbor groups have presented the most opposition.

Senior Happy Herold, a volunteer at the children’s home, disagrees with Cerniglia.

“There’s no one in the city who thinks it’s a good idea to sell the land and potentially develop it,” Herold said.

Herold, along with over 500 others, signed an online petition to preserve the home. The petition against the sale cites environmental and historical concerns as reasons the property should not be sold, such as the possible removal of old growth trees, destruction of the Moore Chapel and disruption of Rev. Jesse Boring’s grave. Community members have also voiced concern about potential traffic and school system strains.

The property has not been put on the market, and “not much else has happened since the Board’s vote,” said Cerniglia.

About 80 people live on the property, most of whom are homeless families or young adults who have aged out of foster care. These people will be relocated when the sale goes through. The UMCH is currently working with an unnamed real estate firm to find a place to relocate the residents.

“They’re in such a loving community,” Herold said. “[Decatur] makes them who they are, and without that, I don’t know if they’d still be the same kids or be as caring and loving and behaving kids as they are now.”

Although a small part of the property is within city limits, the majority is not. Decatur is not currently considering annexing the area if they do not buy the land.

The property has been valued above $30 million. According to Cerniglia, the UMCH will use the funds to expand programs in North Georgia.

UMCH estimates the organization will serve approximately 63 more people every year, in perpetuity, as a result of the decision,” the home stated in a press release.

Herold voiced concern that this may not be the only reason the board voted for the sale.

“I believe the board is getting some financial compensation out of the sale,” she said. “There were six new board members put on the board in the last six months who are pro-development: either architects, engineers, or developers. I think they were put on just for this vote.”

Of the 35 total board members, 11 joined in 2016.

Each member must sign a Conflict of Interest policy, Cerniglia said. The policy requires trustees to remove themselves from a decision if there is a conflict of interest.

Mayor Patti Garrett said that if the city purchased the property, they would envision making “the fields, pool, and gymnasium a part of [the city’s] Active Living department and to partner with the community for developing a long-term master plan.”

At the Feb. 6 City Commission meeting, commissioners passed a resolution in support of legislation that would create a Public Facilities Authority (PFA). The bill is intended to aid in financing the purchase of the UMCH property.

“[The PFA] would be able to secure Revenue Bonds for purchases that benefit the citizens of the city (such as the purchase of the UMCH),” Garrett stated.

Several developers have also expressed interest, Cerniglia said.

“I think [the city buying the property] is one of the better solutions, but what the children’s home does is pretty amazing stuff,” Herold said. “If Decatur decides to buy it and doesn’t continue that, it would just break my heart.”

The UMCH will require that any buyer keeps a small portion of the land as a memorial, but this area has not been selected yet. Aside from this, there are no restrictions by the UMCH on what a purchaser may do with the property.

“It is not our interest to put any restrictions on what will happen with the property once it is purchased,” Cerniglia said.

 

Contact the writer at 19aidengibbs@csdecatur.net