By Amy Wenk
The Church of Scientology’s rezoning request to allow a move into southern Sandy Springs slammed into neighborhood opposition at a community-developer resolution meeting April 23.
It was the initial public discussion for the application, which is scheduled to go before the Sandy Springs City Council on June 16.
Now based in Dunwoody, the church wants to move to 5395 Roswell Road, at the corner of Glenridge Drive south of I-285. The location is two miles north of Buckhead and less than two miles west of Brookhaven.
The zoning application is being closely watched by the High Point Civic Association, which covers Sandy Springs south of I-285 and east of Roswell Road to the borders with Atlanta and DeKalb County.
The Church of Scientology is the controversial church founded by science fiction writer L. Ron Hubbard and featuring such high-profile members as actors Tom Cruise and John Travolta.
Alan Powell, the president of the High Point group, said his organization has no issues with the church but does have questions about the maintenance and uses of the building. He said the building has not been well cared for during the time church members have owned it.
Church members purchased the property around 2005. The congregation plans to renovate the 46,000-square-foot structure and must seek rezoning because current conditions limit the site to office and professional use.
“We really aren’t asking for a significant change … just the right to have a religious institution on the property,” said Woody Galloway of Dillard & Galloway, the attorney for the church.
He said the church will spend more than $3 million to convert the interior of the building. “The existing perimeter will not change.”
But for an hour and a half, neighbors raised concerns, complaints and questions to the church’s representative.
In addition, a group of four women, one of them a city resident, came to City Hall to protest Scientology and quietly captured the conversation on camera. They post videos online and protest monthly at the church’s current home in Dunwoody.
Traffic congestion and parking shortages topped the list of concerns for speakers from such affected neighborhoods as Round Hill Condominiums and Winfield Glenn.
“It will just destroy the quality of life there at Round Hill,” said Richard Herren, an association board member. He said he already hears a constant shriek of skidding wheels from his home.
That’s probably because that portion of Roswell Road has seven traffic lights in an area that should have only two, said Kent Garner of the Winfield Glen Homeowners Association.
“We have a huge problem with the traffic right now on Roswell Road,” Round Hill resident Patty Burns said.
She said city transportation planner Mark Moore told her the church would bring 40 more cars to the road each morning and evening.
“If you add anything else, it’s just going to get worse,” said Round Hill resident Gloria Sartogo, who had two car accidents in two years near the community entrance. “There’s just no other way out” of the development.
Galloway said the Church of Scientology is not like a traditional Christian church where large crowds attend one service.
“It’s spread out,” he said, noting members often attend one-on-one counseling or classes similar to Sunday school.
The church has 600 active members, but gatherings usually would be small, he said. The maximum capacity of the sanctuary is 200.
“On an extra-good week, they have 100,” Galloway said. “They do intend to grow.”
As far as parking, he said the 83 spaces would be sufficient; the city requires 46 based on a standard calculation. For special events, Galloway said, the church would seek offsite parking, shuttle patrons or provide a police presence for traffic control.
Trisha Thompson, the zoning committee chairwoman with the Sandy Springs Council of Neighborhoods, proposed several conditions for the rezoning: no overnight stays at the facility; no Narcotics Anonymous meetings; and action by the church to address sidewalks on Roswell Road and Glenridge Drive.
Thompson also wants to ensure adequate parking and limit people at gatherings. “At this time, the applicant has been unwilling to add a capacity cap,” she said.
Community Development Director Nancy Leathers reminded residents that while she will address their concerns, she also must protect the rights of the church. “Religious institutions have broad rights under the U.S. Constitution.”
The church’s application will go before the Planning Commission on May 21. Staff will draft conditions after researching many of the resident concerns, Leathers said, and she anticipates a clause regarding large events.