The Sandy Springs City Council has deferred approving a zoning change that would settle the Church of Scientology’s lengthy religious discrimination lawsuit against the city.
The council at its June 19 meeting voted 4-2 to defer the zoning change until its July 17 meeting, rejecting the advice of its attorney. The council wanted to give residents objecting to the application more time to review the zoning change. Residents claimed they did not receive adequate notice.
Council members John Paulson and Dianne Fries voted against the motion, saying the city should follow the advice of its attorney, Laurel Henderson, who is representing the city in the case.
The church is located at 5395 Roswell Road. The settlement would allow the church to expand its current space in exchange for adding more parking.
The city ran a public notice about the proposed settlement in the Sandy Springs Neighbor newspaper but did not run a notice in the Sandy Springs Reporter newspaper. Robin Beechey, a resident who has been vocal against the application since it was introduced in 2009, said many in the community living in the Perimeter inside I-285 do not receive The Sandy Springs Neighbor.
Both papers publish legal notices for the city. The city was required to give 15 days public notice prior to a public hearing about the settlement. The notice for the June 19 meeting ran in the May 30 edition of The Sandy Springs Neighbor but did not run in the June 1 edition of The Sandy Springs Reporter.
City Attorney Wendell Willard said the city did not run the notice in the June 1 edition because of a timing issue. The Sandy Springs Reporter publishes its print edition every other Friday. However, the city ran a legal notice in the June 1 issue about another unrelated zoning matter set for the June 19 meeting.
(In this video: Robin Beechey, a Sandy Springs resident, urges the city council to delay the Church of Scientology’s zoning application.)
The lack of a notice in The Reporter was enough to convince the council that a delay would show residents the city is being transparent about the settlement.
Henderson warned that if the council ultimately denies the zoning request, the deferral could support the church’s claim that the city’s real issue isn’t with the church’s parking but with the church itself.
In 2009 the council, voting in front of a standing-room only crowd, approved the zoning application after Mayor Eva Galambos cast a vote to break a 3-3 tie. The council’s approval limited the church’s plans, keeping the building’s size at 32,053 square feet instead of the 43,916 square feet the church wanted. The church planned to enclose an underground parking garage and provide 111 parking spaces.
The latest proposed zoning change allows the church to expand as long as it provides 130 parking spaces.
Councilman Chip Collins, who proposed the deferral, said he didn’t see any short term harm in giving the neighborhoods more time to learn about the settlement.
He said the council and members of the church have had more time to study the proposed settlement than the church’s neighbors.
“I just don’t see any more than a theoretical downside,” Collins said.
Bob Adams, vice president for the Church of Scientology International, said the church will continue to work with the city to reach a resolution. Dozens of members of the church attended the meeting and wore “I Support Scientology” stickers.
Adams said he understands the council deferred the motion to ensure citizens had additional time to give input.
“We’re disappointed it didn’t pass,” Adams said.
(In this video: Chris Burns, a Church of Scientology member, voices his support for the Church of Scientology’s zoning application during a June 19, 2012 city council meeting.)
Woody Galloway, an attorney representing the church, said it was the city’s responsibility to properly notify the public.
Both men said if the only issue being discussed is whether the church has adequate parking, then the church has met the requirements set by the city.
In other action, the city council:
– Approved its $179 million Fiscal Year 2013 budget. The $90 million general fund budget is a 17.6 percent increase from the Fiscal Year 2012 budget. The city will spend an expected $11.2 million surplus on building projects, a list that includes $5 million for a new city hall and $4 million to spend on downtown infrastructure. The city is currently in the process of drawing up its downtown master plan, which it expects to adopt this fall. The largest expense in the general fund is the $31.5 million the city plans to spend on police and fire services.
– Deferred a zoning application for a development along Mitchell Road that could mean the destruction of a church that some claim is historic. A report commissioned by developer Arrowhead Real Estate/The Columns Group says the St. James Anglican Church at 5975 Mitchell Road is not as old as the church’s owners previously claimed, stating it was constructed in the 20th century, not the 1860s. City staff is recommending the council approve the application but rejected the variances the developer requested that would’ve reduced the setbacks. The developer plans to construct single family residences. The vote on the zoning request was pushed back to August to allow the developer to have additional meetings with the city’s planning commission and residents affected by the project.
– Approved the hiring of two full time employees and one part time employee to handle the city’s human resources needs. This is atypical for Sandy Springs, a city known for outsourcing many of its basic functions to contractors. City staff concluded it would be $100,000 cheaper for the city to hire staff to oversee human resources. Councilman Tibby DeJulio voted against hiring the new employees.