The Church of Scientology received the go-ahead from the City of Sandy Springs to convert an office building into a church space, Tuesday night.
In a 5-1 vote, City Council approved zoning modification conditions to expand the office building, located at Glenridge Drive and Roswell Road.
“Right now the city is at about $90,000 in damages,” said Laurel Henderson, legal counsel for the city."
It was a standing room crowd.
The Church of Scientology sued the City of Sandy Springs in state and Federal District Court for discrimination, in 2009. Their request for modification included converting an underground parking deck into finished usable space. Although converting the building was approved, the city denied conversion of the parking deck saying 130 total parking spaces were required.
In February 2012, a Federal District Court judge sent the case to mediation. As a result, the church came up with a plan that meets the city requirements and allows the building to expand from 32,053 to 43,916 square feet.
During the previous City Council meeting, in June, members decided to delay a decision to grant expansion and settle the lawsuit, against legal counsel's advice.
"If It's About Parking..."
“If that’s true [and it is about parking] then we’ve got the solution,” said Church of Scientology attorney, Woody Galloway. “If it’s about keeping the Church of Scientology out of Sandy Springs, then we can’t address that because the church has a right to be here.”
Parking spaces were at the heart of Church of Scientology’s discrimination suit against the city.
Sandy Springs attorney Laurel Henderson explained two past instances in which City Council members approved variances for under-parked facilities. In one case, the city initially required Beth Teffilah synagogue to have 105 parking spaces when it sought to build a school and other facilities, on the property, Henderson said. The synagogue only had 71 spaces, but a permit for expansion was granted after they presented a letter stating that a school nearby would allow use of its parking lot.
In similar fashion, City Council later approved variances with another church, Henderson said.
Along with adding parking spaces required by the city, the Church of Scientology has the use of parking spaces at a post office easement. The easement was also provided to the previous occupants of the Scientology building.
Settle this Case, Says Sandy Springs Legal Counsel
In recommending that Council members approve zoning modifications that have already been worked out with the church Henderson said, “If we lose, you can anticipate we will be paying for attorney fees and cost of litigation, as well as potential claims for the loss of use…That could run into hundreds of thousands of dollars.”
Sandy Springs has a list of parking space requirements for businesses by category. The church category list 46 spaces, Henderson said, another point in the Church of Scientology suit.
Henderson said that if the City of Sandy Springs lost at trial, the church may not have to add additional parking spaces and residents could find church-goers parking in their neighborhoods.
Nearby Residents Disappointed
Jack Shaw, representing Round Hill Condominium Association, is one of hundreds of residents opposed to approval of the zoning modifications. He suggested a lawsuit by the citizens of Sandy Springs if the zoning was approved.
“We insist that the Mayor and City Council take the leadership roles you were elected for,” Shaw said. “Place the concerns of Sandy Springs taxpayers and residents ahead of a misguided fear of the Church of Scientology and reject this proposed settlement.”
Tibby Dejulio was the sole Council vote against the zoning modification. However, Karen Meinzen McEnerny said she, too, was against it despite her intention to approve it.
“I am troubled that I participated in zoning decisions in the past that were cited today. One involving a synagogue, another involving another type of church, McEnerny said. "[This] allowed, in my view, a basis for the plaintiff to claim discrimination. As much I would like to deny this application, I have no grounds to do so.”
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