As an attorney, I have represented the Neely family for almost 25 years.
In early 2015, the family received an offer for the 135-acre tract on Highway 162, which we referred to as the Avery tract because Ted Neely had purchased it from the Avery family. The Neelys had been actively trying to sell the property for two years. The Purchaser was represented by a very reputable commercial agent from the highly regarded real estate firm of Marcus and Millichaps.
A price was agreed upon (exactly half the price being erroneously reported). The Purchaser was a corporation whose directors were American professionals and businessmen of East Asian descent residing in north Atlanta. I, as attorney for the Neely family, represented them in negotiating the sales contract with the Purchaser.
The contract indicated the intent of the purchaser “to place thereon, a cemetery, school and church.” I determined from the Newton County Developmental Services staff the requirements for such a use. The Purchaser then employed an engineering firm and a land use planner to master plan the property to include the uses they intended. A concept plan entitled “Avery Community Church, Cemetery and Future School” was prepared.
I attended two meetings with the county planning staff to discuss the matter. The county was aware of the fact that the intended church would be Islamic, the cemetery used to bury people of the Islamic faith, and that any future school would be operated by the church. Specifically, the Purchaser proposed a small burial preparation room. A question arose as to whether the burial preparation would include embalming which the Purchaser indicated it did not as was customary with the Islamic protocol for burial.
As Lloyd Kerr has indicated, the requirements of the county for any church or cemetery were met and as a matter of standard procedure an Administrative Use Permit was issued. What Lloyd did not say was that under the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 the county could not treat the purchaser any differently than the two Christian churches being planned and built on Hwy. 36. The RLUIPA was introduced in the Senate by Orin Hatch of Utah and passed both houses of Congress unanimously.
I would point out that the conceptual plan contains almost 15 acres of park and passive recreation area which will be open to use by the general public. Contrary to comments on social media, only about 21 acres would be committed to residential use which would support no more than 20 homes.
Finally, I would point out that the Neely family thoughtfully vetted the purchasers and their use. The plan reflects a campus style church, cemetery and future school with abundant green space and recreational land. To suggest that the Neely’s in selling, me in representing my client of decades, the engineering firm in preparing a very green campus or the county staff in approving a plan which met every criteria somehow betrayed the community is clearly inconsistent with the facts.
Philip A. Johnson