By Amy Wenk
The Church of Scientology has sparked a battle this year in Sandy Springs. Since March, hundreds of residents from 14 neighborhood or civic associations have adamantly opposed the church relocating from Dunwoody to the property it purchased in late 2005 at the intersection of Roswell Road and Glenridge Drive.
Those citizens have, month after month, meeting after meeting, grasped the podium to voice their concerns about traffic and parking. They have implored city boards and planning staff to deny the rezoning application that otherwise would permit the stately, brick building to become the Georgia Scientology headquarters. They have solicited neighbors for support and submitted more than 500 signatures on petitions to the city. And they have no plans to give up.
Residents remain steadfast in their opposition, while city officials waver in deciding the case.
The application was unexpectedly deferred by City Council for the second time Aug. 18 after the church submitted new conditions (view a copy at www. reporternewspapers.net).
“We came prepared to fight our case that night,” said 10-year resident Robin Beechey who represents the 72 homeowners of Willow Glen Condominiums on Glenridge Drive. “There were a lot of people in that room that night who felt disappointed. They felt their journey had been somewhat wasted. They could have been warned in advance.”
The application will go before the city’s Planning Commission for the third time Sept. 17, and the council is scheduled to take a final vote Oct. 20.
Those opposed say having the Church of Scientology at 5395 Roswell Road would make an already-bad traffic situation worse for nearby neighborhoods.
“If you ask the average Sandy Springs person, the first thing that comes up is traffic,” said 19-year resident Jane Kelley, zoning chair for the High Point Civic Association that represents 500 homeowners.
The intersection at Glenridge Drive is “so misconfigured that it is dangerous now,” she said. “We’re afraid if the zoning changes from offices only to something more intensive, it’s really going to be bad. And there are no plans for improving that intersection.”
For Round Hill Condominium resident Gloria Sartogo, the prospect of additional traffic near her home is “more than disconcerting” as she wrote in a May 3 letter to Dist. 6 Councilwoman Karen McEnerny.
“I have lived here for two years and after a driving record of over 40 years with no moving violations, I have experienced two accidents at the intersection of Roswell Road and Glenridge,” Sartogo said. “One of the accidents was due to poor visibility since the intersection is located on a curve and a hill. The other was a hit and run at the neck of the intersection.”
Patty Burns, also a Round Hill resident, fears church traffic would cause more accidents.
She recently had bones fused in her neck, said Kelley, to remedy injuries from her own traffic altercation at the intersection.
“This area is already overwhelmed with traffic problems and the configuration and congestion of the intersection continues to present problems,” Burns wrote in a May 7 letter. “For example, there is only a two-car turn lane headed south on Roswell Road onto Glenridge. More than two cars headed south blocks the entrance to Round Hill Condominiums. When this happens, this turn lane contributes a standstill of traffic which backs up into the intersection of Roswell and Glenridge roads.”
She added the church’s other outlet is shared with a “very busy” post office. “This is a public safety hazard.”
Another resident concern is whether parking is adequate for the site. The Church of Scientology is asking permission to close in the bottom-level parking deck for additional space. That alteration would increase the square footage by more than 10,000 square feet, while reducing parking from 111 to 81 spaces.
“If Atlanta is able to achieve Nashville’s per capita membership with an investment of over $9 million when they are done with this renovation, there would be over 1,700 members there,” said Kelley, who based her estimates on membership and parking data supplied by the church in June.
Helen Dixon, a Round Hill resident since 1986, understands the issue parking could become at the former real estate office.
”I was with Buckhead Brokers when Marty Marchman built that building,” said Dixon in an April 30 letter to the city. “Many times on Tuesday morning, when sales meetings were held, we had a parking problem. I know the building and the grounds, and I cannot believe parking for a big group would ever cause anything but grief.”
Another citizen Clarice Comer asserts if the city allows an intense use like a church, the character of residential areas will suffer.
“Please, our neighborhood is being bombarded with commercial shopping centers, churches, schools, sporting facilities, etc. that will definitely effect our lifestyle,” wrote Comer to the city May 6.
“When I purchased this home, this was an all residential area. We cannot let these commercial buildings continue to encroach on our homes. We are being run out of our own neighborhood.”
Throughout the rezoning process, almost no residents have spoken against the religious practices of the Church of Scientology.
“We have been scrupulously careful … I think half of the petitions do not even mention the name of the applicant,” Beechey said. “We would be doing the same if it was any church, any organization that was proposing to use this place other than … as offices.”
Kelley agreed. “It doesn’t matter to me who it is. It is not a religious issue.”