By Amy Wenk
For seven months, debate has beset the Church of Scientology’s request to relocate to Sandy Springs.
Residents from 14 neighborhood or civic associations stand in opposition, and city officials have three times postponed a decision on the zoning application, which seeks approval to use the church’s property at 5395 Roswell Road for a church.
But few words have been heard from the Scientologists, so Sept. 11 the Sandy Springs Reporter visited the church’s current location on North Shallowford Road in Dunwoody to hear their side of story.
Deb Danos, special affairs director for the Church of Scientology, and Vinings resident Joel Benk, a 24-year parishioner, shared their view of the process and shined light on the church’s need to relocate.
“Many of the parishioners come to me to ask questions,” said Danos, who serves as liaison between the church’s attorney, Woody Galloway, and the congregation. “They come to me, and they want to know why it is that we are having a third go-around on this thing. It’s taking long. Everybody’s anxious to move in. They are very excited about getting into the new building.”
The Church of Scientology’s current space in Dunwoody is a 12,000-square-foot facility. The congregation, which has about 100 active members, moved to the site two years ago from a 7,000-square-foot building on Mount Vernon Road in Dunwoody.
The congregation purchased the Sandy Springs property at the corner of Roswell Road and Glenridge Drive in 2005. The stately building has more than 32,000 square feet.
The Church of Scientology requested in March the former real estate office be rezoned to allow religious services. From the introduction of the application, the community has been at odds with the request.
The main concerns are inadequate parking and increased traffic congestion. As part of the planned $3 million renovation to the interior of the building, the church has proposed enclosing the 30-car underground parking deck to add more than 10,000 square feet for a chapel, additional office space and classrooms. The construction would reduce parking from 111 to 81 spaces.
But the city has refuted that addition on the basis of insufficient parking onsite. The church still advocates for the increased square footage, and much of the application’s delay is due to that disagreement.
Despite this, Benk said he sees the rezoning process as normal and good.
“It’s a reasonable thing,” said the dentist who has practiced in Atlanta since 1980. “Actually, it’s how you do business in the sense of developing a property. It’s changing from one thing to another, so everybody here wants to do it exactly the way it’s supposed to be done and follow the rules and regulations.”
Danos said she believes the process is slow because of confusion about the church and its practices. A closer look she said could assuage community concerns about parking and traffic.
“We didn’t realize going in that there was as much information going to be needed by others regarding our operations as ultimately we discovered,” Danos said. “I understand traffic and parking, sure. And if you look at the size of the building … it looks daunting, like there could be a bunch of people in that space. However that is not the way we use space.”
As for traffic, Danos said the congregation might donate a triangle-shaped portion of land at the corner of Roswell Road and Glenridge Drive. “We are more than willing to consider” that to improve traffic congestion at the intersection, she said. Overall, the church is just looking to “fit into the neighborhood.”