When Rhett Roberson sought a special land use permit from the city to operate a physical therapy business in the basement of his Dunwoody North home, he thought he would likely get approval because “licensed therapists” was listed as an example of such a business in the city’s official code.
Instead, the City Council voted unanimously in January to deny his application after backlash from some of Roberson’s neighbors opposing the application. They told council members, among other things, that they worried about more traffic in their quiet residential neighborhood. Before the council vote, the Planning Commission voted to deny approval.
Roberson said he has spoken to an attorney and is considering the appeals process. He may also start over and reapply.
“I could also continue with my three other jobs,” he said.
The controversy that ensued after Roberson’s application became public prompted city officials to decide to take a closer look at the code. The council is now considering tweaking the Type B home business restrictions to included shorter hours, stricter parking requirements, and defining “incidental client contact.” Second and final read of the tweaks to the code are slated for April 11.
Currently in the city code, Type B home occupations are defined as “those in which household residents use their home as a place of work and either one non-resident employee or customers come to the site. Typical examples include tutors, teachers, photographers and licensed therapists or counselors.”
At the March 27 City Council meeting, Councilmember Terry Nall asked Director of Community Development Steve Foote if the city should remove the listed examples of businesses for Type A and Type B businesses.
“I’m not a fan of articulating any examples,” Nall said. “It should never be assumed that approval will be automatic.”
Foote said he and the Planning Commission had discussed that listing the examples might give applicants a “false impression” and that he would go back and make edits.
At the January meeting when the council voted to deny the SLUP request, Councilmember John Heneghan said he was voting against it because Roberson’s physical therapy business is actually a medical facility. And, according to the city’s comprehensive plan and character area studies, medical facilities are not allowed to be located in areas such as the Dunwoody North neighborhood.
However, Foote and city staff did recommend approval of Roberson’s SLUP request and did not define it as a medical facility.
Roberson thinks perhaps the Manget Way controversy from several years ago is affecting the City Council’s decision. Last year, the city settled a federal lawsuit for $850,000 with Center for Discovery, a California-based company that leased a house on Manget Way as a place to treat teenage girls with eating disorders.
Residents and the Zoning Board of Appeals at the time argued city staff had wrongly designated the treatment center as a personal care home rather than a medical facility, but the courts ruled against the city.
“I think that [decision] sparked a lot of fear in the community,” Roberson said.
“People are gun-shy now,” he added.
Heneghan said after the March 27 meeting that he believes Roberson’s proposed business is a medical facility despite what city staff recommended.
Roberson said he felt Heneghan’s arguments led to a lot of “misdirection” and that the code should be interpreted literally while comprehensive plans are “vision documents” that are not meant to be taken literally.
“Licensed therapist is in the code as an approved Type B business,” Roberson said. “I think this decision silos Dunwoody a little bit — it’s a step backward.”