A dispute over a backyard swim lesson business is making a splash in Sandy Springs City Hall, dividing the City Council and neighbors, and raising the ire of more than 900 angry parents.

Some supporters say that helpless children will drown if Swim With Allison can’t stay in business to teach them swimming. Despite such backyard lessons being illegal in residential areas, the city accidentally gave it a license for four years. Against the advice of the mayor and the city attorney, a special code designed to legalize the business is headed to the city Planning Commission — where commissioner Reed Haggard is also the neighbor whose complaint about noise and traffic threw cold water on the business.

The logo from the Swim With Allison business website.

Allison Dubovsky operated the business in the pool behind her house at 640 Weatherly Lane, in a cul-de-sac in the exclusive Riverside neighborhood. At the March 20 City Council meeting, she said she got the proper business license, paid taxes and secured liability insurance. Then she got an email from the city “out of the blue, late one night in January.” It said there had been a complaint and a review found that an outdoor business was prohibited in her area. The city yanked her license two days before student registration began. Her attempt to find another location or build screening to turn it into a legal indoor business failed, she said.

Dubovsky was joined by a large contingent of residents and customers who said her business caused no problems and trained children in swimming safety. She also had a petition with more than 900 signatures. That swayed City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio into what he said was a rare call for new legal action.

City Councilmember Tibby DeJulio

“This is a problem,” DeJulio said. “If the kids are not getting swimming lessons somewhere, they’re in danger, because there’s a great number of pools in our community.”

Haggard said in a phone interview that the real question is zoning.

“Everybody keeps trying to make this into something it’s not. This is not about swim lessons,” he said. “It’s a decision about whether the city of Sandy Springs should allow very large, very noisy” and traffic-generating businesses in areas that are zoned residential.

Haggard, whose back yard abuts the Swim With Allison pool, said he first got involved with complaints years ago as former president of the Riverside Homeowners Association. He said they were unable to resolve the situation. More recently, his work on the city’s new zoning code made him realize the business is not legal there. He asked city staff, who reviewed it and later pulled the license, he said.

It remains unclear why the city never noticed the business should not have been licensed. Also unclear are numbers of students and other traffic. Haggard said the business enrolled 300 students a summer. Dubovsky — who later declined further comment — spoke before the council only in terms of six children per hour and an “average” of four cars per hour, and said Haggard’s complaint was off by “thousands.” The business’s website, which does not give a street address, says that first-time child swimmers often cry, and it “strongly encouraged” spectators, including extended family members and nannies.

Other residents said there were no issues, including neighbor Ross Perloe, who is also a former Riverside HOA president. “There’s not a problem,” he told the council.

Following DeJulio’s request, city planning staff brought a possible zoning ordinance to the council on April 3. It aimed to legalize backyard businesses involving athletic classes with tightly limited numbers of students and hours of operation, plus fencing and off-street parking requirements.

City Attorney Dan Lee and Mayor Rusty Paul opposed the idea as a Pandora’s box for such businesses as an air rifle range or batting cages with noisy aluminum bats.

“I think you make a huge public policy mistake when you try to legislate for one specific situation,” Paul said.

Councilmember Chris Burnett suggested tightening the hours or naming other types of unwanted businesses. But Jody Reichel, who backed giving Swim with Allison a second chance, said that would hurt the business, while Paul said it is impossible to list all the other businesses that could use it as a loophole.

Lee suggested one possible out: allowing only businesses certified as life safety classes by the American Red Cross. However, that does not appear to be part of the suggested ordinance.

Meanwhile, other neighbors and customers continued to push the safety angle in a public comment period. One said he prefers Dubovsky’s backyard classes to Buckhead’s Garden Hills pool, where “it’s a bit rough.” Another said that without the business, “And really, children could drown and where would the onus be?”

At Reichel’s suggestion, the council informally agreed to send the proposed ordinance to the Planning Commission for an advisory opinion. That’s the body where Haggard sits as one of seven members. Perloe said Haggard should recuse himself from the discussion. Haggard said he’ll decide that when the time comes. For now, his opinion of the business under current code was clear.

“This is not a mom-and-pop business,” he said, citing its size. “It’s an inappropriate location. … I hope she can find an appropriate location,” or seek a rezoning, he said.

Even if the proposed ordinance were to pass, city staff said, it likely could not approved until this fall. That means for at least this season, no customers will be swimming with Allison in the controversial business.

John Ruch

John Ruch is an Atlanta-based journalist. Previously, he was Managing Editor of Reporter Newspapers.