Although legal counsel strongly recommended approval of a zoning modification for the Church of Scientology, City Council members delayed its decision until the next meeting on July 17.
One side of the packed room was pleased and the other disappointed, at Tuesday's City Council meeting.
Many residents in attendance urged Council members not to approve the modification, which is about parking spaces for an office building that would be converted to a church at Glenridge Drive and Roswell Road. They complained the city did not sufficiently notify the public through legal notices to media that the issue would be on the meeting agenda.
“We feel that there has been a total disregard for the interests of local residents, said Robin Beechey. "[And] no effort to put them in the picture." He made a statement during public comment on behalf of Willow Glen Condominiums and several other homeowner associations.
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The Church of Scientology sued the City of Sandy Springs in state and Federal District Court for discrimination, after they sought to convert the office building on the property for church use in 2009. Their request 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.
“We feel that scientology has met all conditions and standards that the city has provided to them for parking,” said Laurel Henderson, counsel for the city. “And it is our position to strongly recommend that this matter be approved.”
In addition to the parking requirement, the Church of Scientology had to meet curb and fire safety modifications. The church attorney, Woody Galloway said the required parking spaces cost an additional $300,000.
“We have met every single requirement that you have asked us to meet,” said Galloway. ”…If the issue in this case is truly about parking, then we should be able to resolve it tonight.”
Opponents and Proponents
Residents in opposition to the church expansion sited increased traffic concerns at an already hazardous intersection. Patty Burns said, “It’s a total monstrosity at that intersection. If there is not sufficient parking at that address – the Church of Scientology – there’s going to be parking at Willow Glen, Round Hill, Carriage Gate, all the condominiums around.”
Opponents also pointed to a post office easement saying the church does not have exclusive rights to use it as part of their parking lot plans. However, Henderson said the church can indeed use the easement, as did the previous property occupant, a real estate company.
Numerous members of the Church of Scientology told Council members they were drawn to metro Atlanta for business and their growing faith community. Karen Lange, an equities trade, lives less than a mile away from the Scientology building. Lange, a 20 year member of the church, owned the former Buckhead Homes building company with her husband Paul.
Chris Burns moved to Atlanta three years ago for his insurance business and the Church of Scientology. He said, “I have seen the impact that the church has had on the community and what an asset it is.”
That said, four Council members – Chip Collins, Gabriel Sterling, Tibby DeJulio and Karen Meinzen McEnerny strongly believed more time was needed to allow Sandy Springs residents to comment on approval of modification on the property.
Councilwoman Diane Fries said she was a little stunned by the need for delay after the city’s legal team worked for months to come up with a recommendation.
“I will be going with the recommendations of our legal team,” she said. “We’re here to protect this city.”
Fries and John Paulson were the dissenting votes in the motion to delay until the next meeting.
“I have to agree with Councilman Fries. It’s not as if this has been languishing in some back room and no one spent any time on it, and all of a sudden it showed up,” Paulson said.”…This has been something that our legal counsel, at our behest, has been working towards a resolution…”