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Posted by on July 17, 2012.

UPDATED: Sandy Springs City Council votes to settle Scientology suit

A crowd of supporters and opponents of a zoning application for the Church of Scientology watch the Sandy Springs City Council’s July 17, 2012 meeting. The council voted 5-1 to approve the application.

The Sandy Springs City Council on July 17 voted 5 to 1 to settle the religious discrimination lawsuit the Church of Scientology filed against it.

The council also voted to defer settlement of another unrelated lawsuit concerning plans to develop 5775 and 5795 Glenridge Drive.

The end of the Scientology lawsuit hasn’t ended the controversy about the case that has dragged on for three years, and several dozen residents attended the meeting to ask council members to reject the settlement. As part of the agreement, the council approved a zoning application to allow the church to expand. Councilman Tibby DeJulio was the only no vote.

The city’s attorney said denying the application could potentially put the city on the hook for hundreds of thousands of dollars in litigation costs. Mayor Eva Galambos told the audience that the settlement was in the city’s best interest.

“There’s a party that’s not in the room tonight,” Galambos said. “That is a federal district judge.”

The case stems from a 2009 application to rezone the church’s building at 5395 Roswell Road. The church wanted to expand, but the council narrowly approved a zoning application that limited the church’s size 32,053 square feet instead of the 43,916 square feet the church wanted.

On July 17, the council approved the expansion and the church has agreed to provide 130 parking spaces.

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Council members opted to move on instead of continue arguing a case the city’s attorney said would be an uphill battle. Attorney Laurel Henderson told the council that two previous zoning decisions – including one involving a synagogue – would bolster the Church of Scientology’s case. In both cases the city allowed adjustments to the parking rules to accommodate those applicants.

Councilwoman Karen Meinzen McEnerny said before the vote that she was “troubled” that the council’s past zoning decisions were being used as ammunition in the Scientology suit.

“As much as I would like to deny this application, I have no grounds to do so,” McEnerny said. “I am going to be voting in support to ensure judicial and religious parity to these plaintiffs.”

Henderson said the city already told church members they would need 130 spaces. The church members were prepared to argue a stricter interpretation of the law that required only 46 parking spaces, she said.

“I certainly am not averse to arguing a position,” Henderson said. “However it’s important for everyone to understand what the downside is.”

The city’s insurance carrier so far has spent $84,000 on the case, according to the most recent estimates. Henderson said the final cost could’ve been much higher if the case went to trial, including money paid for attorney’s fees and loss of use of the property.

Community members opposed to the application weren’t swayed by Henderson’s arguments.

Robin Beechey, a prominent opponent of the zoning application, said some of the spaces the church wants to use are owned by the U.S. Postal Service.

“We feel this is a test of the council’s resolve to resist the pressure and stand firm on the zoning ordinance,” Beechey said.

After the council’s decision, Beechey said “the opposition won the argument but lost the vote.”

Henderson and City Attorney Wendell Willard said the post office property has a recorded easement that allows the church members to park there. Willard said that will not change if the adjacent postal service property is sold.

Woody Galloway, an attorney for the church, said he was pleased with the outcome. He said the church’s expansion won’t harm any of the neighbors.

“The neighborhood is going to realize two years from now there never was a parking problem and there never was a parking problem because the nature of the way (Church of Scientology members) practice their religion,” Galloway said.

After it settled that lawsuit, the council voted to defer settling another lawsuit filed by MLGP Lakeside over plans to develop the property at 5775 and 5795 Glenridge Drive.

That lawsuit has its roots in a 2007 zoning application which the city denied in 2008. The developers in 2010 filed a new plan for the 26-acre property, which the city also denied.

The new site plan the city deferred calls for 520 residential units, 8,000 square feet of restaurant space, 700,000 square feet of office space and 42,000 of additional commercial space. That’s a 40 percent reduction in the office density, developers said.

Several factors prompted the council to postpone the decision. The council was concerned about the development’s impact on the medical building across the street from the development. The council also felt the residents did not receive enough legal notice via newspaper ads.

The council will consider approving the plan at its Aug. 21 meeting.

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