Robert Wittenstein recently wrapped up his three-year term as president of the Dunwoody Homeowners Association. His term will in part be remembered as one in which city officials fought over whether DHA members should serve on certain city boards.
Tensions between the city and the DHA flared in 2016 when Mayor Denis Shortal and some council members agreed in secret to keep DHA members from serving on city boards, such as the Planning Commission and Zoning Board of Appeals.
That threat led to backlash from the DHA, including the hiring of its own attorney. The council eventually buckled and retracted the mayor’s mandate that he said was made to protect the city from lawsuits by developers.
“There was no tension [between the DHA and the city] until the events of Mayor Shortal to try to establish whether a conflict of interest existed with our members serving on specific city boards dealing with zoning and variances,” Wittenstein said. “I think Mayor Shortal created some of that tension. Hopefully some of that dissipated … and the city has backed away.”
Shortal promised the city would establish an official policy, but he and council members have never followed through. The DHA, which regularly meets with developers to discuss proposed projects, also has many members who have served and continue to serve on the Planning Commission and ZBA.
“I think the sense was that a policy was unnecessary,” Wittenstein said, noting the mayor is the one who appoints people to all of the city’s boards with traditional approval by the council.
But now that Dunwoody is a city —with a Planning Commission, a Zoning Board of Appeals, a City Council, a community planning department — is there still a need for the DHA?
Absolutely, Wittenstein said. The DHA has 1,000 paying members. Besides providing a public venue for developers to present plans on proposed projects and to receive public input, the DHA serves as the city’s “community chest” by making regular contributions to schools and other nonprofit organizations. And every year, the DHA hosts and pays for popular events such as the Fourth of July Parade and the Light Up Dunwoody winter holiday celebration.
“We advocate for homeowners … we have a slightly different constituency that the city does,” he said.
Before becoming active in DHA, Wittenstein served on the first Dunwoody City Council. He is also an active member of the Anti-Defamation League, the Dunwoody Nature Center, and is part of a community garden that grows fresh produce to donate to the Community Assistance Center.
He’s a yoga practitioner and has hiked much of the Appalachian Trail in Georgia and at the Tennessee/North Carolina border. His trail name, a requirement for any serious hiker, is Stumble. “I like to look around a lot when I hike and tend to stumble,” he said. “It’s better than Tumble.”
He and his wife, Susan, have two sons. One is a world history teacher at Cross Keys High School in Brookhaven and the other is a UGA law student.
His father, Charles Wittenstein, was a Civil Rights lawyer with the Anti-Defamation League in Atlanta who worked closely with Martin Luther King Jr. Charles Wittenstein also helped secure a posthumous pardon for Leo Frank, a Jewish man convicted of raping and killing 13-year-old Mary Phagan in 1913 and was sentenced to death. The governor commuted his sentence to life, but an angry Marietta mob took him from the Milledgeville prison and lynched him.
His father also worked on the Atlanta Charter Commission in the 1970s.
“His mantra was from Deuteronomy that hung on a wall on his office and now hangs in my home, that said, ‘Justice, justice shall thou pursue,’” Wittenstein said of his father. “And that is what he did and what I try to do.”
Before his father died in 2013 after a long bout with cancer, Wittenstein made him a final gift — he built his father’s coffin in the driveway of his Dunwoody home.
“Which was quite a shock for our neighbors because we live in a cul-de-sac,” he said. “It was an emotional experience and an important part of the grieving process for me.”
Adrienne Duncan was named to succeed Wittenstein as DHA president. But Wittenstein will remain on the executive committee.
“I have really enjoyed my three years,” he said. “They’ve been good for me, good for Dunwoody and good for the DHA. “I handed over the gavel, but I’m not riding into the sunset.”