Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Dunwoody's Scarlet Letter

The Life Center Ministries variance request with the local opposition and request for lawyer money was a key agenda item at the last DHA meeting.

The variance request was coming from a church in Sandy Springs but because of its proximity to the Dunwoody city line, neighborhoods inside of our city were riled up too.  The reason I looked forward to this discussion was because I wanted to see how different Life Center's plan was from all of the churches/synagogues in Dunwoody who also provide preschool and daycare.  Along Mt. Vernon alone you have Dunwoody Baptist, All Saints, and Dunwoody United Methodist. Not far away are the JCC, Kingswood UMC and North Peachtree Baptist.  All of these faith-based communities provide preschool and/or daycare with several elements in common:

  • While there may be a preference for children whose parents are members, all programs are open to the public.
  • Children enrolled in these programs may reside outside of Dunwoody, and even outside of DeKalb county.
  • Some parents of enrolled children choose these programs because of proximity to their work, rather than their home.
  • The programs are not free of charge - each requires tuition.  Some find it very expensive.
  • Most, if not all, subcontract some part of their program to an outside vendor.
  • All of these programs have  200 children registered, or more, per year.  

Fortunately for the Dunwoody area, the parent of a preschool child has a variety of equally outstanding options, those above, and the non-sectarian private options throughout town.  The saying goes that a parent could choose a preschool blindfolded, pin-the-tail-on-the-donkey style, and always select an excellent program their child will benefit from.

When I walked into the DHA meeting, I was anticipating a comprehensive discussion of pros and cons from all sides in the debate to fully understand the source of the conflict.

But that's not what happened.

First, the pastor of Life Center Ministries cancelled his appointment to appear, and did not send a representative at all.  There was no getting the story from the horse's mouth.

Second, there was very little analysis of the variance request itself.  All that anyone said was that they were going to build buildings, that Life Center was using Discovery Point as a vendor, and that it was "COMMERCIAL".

The word "commercial" was used no less than two-dozen times in a 15 minute discussion.  (That was where I stopped counting.)  It was COMMERCIAL that parents would pay tuition to drop off children there.  It was COMMERCIAL that they were outsourcing management to Discovery Point.  When other words failed, someone just repeated COMMERCIAL, COMMERCIAL COMMERCIAL.  As if that single word was enough to conclude the case.

When the subject of tuition came up, I mentioned to the lady sitting behind me, "What do you mean, all of the church daycares in town charge tuition."  Her response was an aghast look and an urgent whisper, "But, but....  it's COMMERCIAL!"

Someone else described what other Discovery Point centers look like and claimed that this would be the appearance at Life Center.  Was it true?  No one knows.  No one brought any proof one way or another.  But it doesn't matter, because that same person repeated the magic word:  COMMERCIAL!

Fran Millar added to the performance.  When the discussion turned to the type of church Life Center Ministries is, Fran chimed in with his own indictment:  "Remember, he is a BUSINESSMAN!"  I have to hand it to Fran:  in spite of his own business dealings and support from the business community, he can read an audience and play to it like he's headlining Caesar's Palace.

Dunwoody (and as it would seem from this scenario, Sandy Springs) are inherently hostile to anything described as "COMMERCIAL".  No matter what it is, no matter how large or small, no matter who is involved, "COMMERCIAL" is evil and "C" is the new Scarlet Letter, like Hester Prynne's embroidered "A" in Hawthorne's novel.  What exactly is this commerce everyone is so afraid of?  The definitions below come from the dictionary at Reference.com.

com·mer·cial   [kuh-mur-shuhl]
adjective1. of, pertaining to, or characteristic of commerce.
2. engaged in commerce.
3.  prepared, done, or acting with sole or chief emphasis on salability, profit, or success
4.  able to yield or make a profit:
5.  suitable or fit for a wide, popular market: 

com·merce   [kom-ers]
noun1.  an interchange of goods or commodities, especially on a large scale between different countries (foreign commerce)  or between different parts of the same country (domestic commerce);  trade; business.
2.  social relations, especially the exchange of views, attitudes, etc.
3.  sexual intercourse. (????  -DWG)4.  intellectual or spiritual interchange; communion.
5.  ( initial capital letter ) Also called Commerce Department. Informal . the Department of Commerce.

When you pay someone to cut your lawn or prune your bushes, that is commercial activity.  When you pay a babysitter while you go out for the night, that is commercial activity.  When a church or synagogue pays their light bill or has a contractor resurface a parking lot, that is commercial activity.  When you take your children to preschool at All Saints or Dunwoody UMC and pay their tuition, that is commercial activity.  When Kingswood UMC or Winters Chapel UMC have their consignment sale, that is commercial activity.

Life is commercial!!!

I think what causes residents of a certain age to become fearful is not necessarily the fact of commercial activity, but the perception of the scale and the inherent belief of change.  Fear is a powerful motivator.  Perhaps that's why there was so little factual discussion and no documentable evidence of the alleged concerns one way or another.

I was able to glean two items out of the discussion that could impact the variance decision.  First are the operating hours.  A local resident claimed that the operating hours would be from 6 AM to 6 PM, corresponding to peak traffic times along Mt. Vernon.  I have no idea whether or not this is true.  It may very well be.  Or, it may be an assumption on the part of someone who researched Discovery Point and merely concluded that these hours would be applied.   The second was reported by Sam and Molly Portis who were also sitting behind me at the meeting.  They claim there is a house on the property with significant cultural and historic value that would be destroyed if the church's plan were approved.  That could be very important but alas, the documentation was not presented at the meeting itself.

I have no idea which side in this dispute is in the right.  There was no evidence presented.  There was talk and the word "COMMERCIAL" was thrown out like candy at the 4th of July parade.  But no documentation, photos, diagrams, business plans, ANYTHING that could back up what anyone was saying.

But no one needed to bring proof.

Because in Dunwoody, if anyone has a complaint about anyone else, for any reason, all you have to do is claim they are engaged in COMMERCIAL activity.  It doesn't even have to be true!  A complaint could be based on a personality conflict or other neighbor feud.  It doesn't matter.  Just make sure to repeat the word "COMMERCIAL" when you complain about someone and an army will materialize to subdue whomever you dislike and gain whatever solution you want.

Per this week's Crier, Life Center Ministries has withdrawn the application for the day care center and required variances.

See, it works!  Just yell the word COMMERCIAL COMMERCIAL COMMERCIAL as frequently as you can and you don't have to trouble yourself with standards of proof or evidence.  Your word is law when you brand your sworn enemy with the Scarlet C.


Sight Edman said...

First let me say I am in agreement that these kinds of discussions should be centered around facts and executable plans more-so than supposition, but you were at a pep rally, not a debate. I will also point out that the rhetorical techniques you have documented provide the foundation of Dunwoody becoming a city. There was no more pre-referendum fact-based discussion then than what you witnessed at this DHA meeting. 'nuff said.

As someone who probably "fits that description" I would like to take a little issue with your observation of "residents of a certain age" who often are and clearly were at this meeting. I am assuming this refers to "old farts" and if I am wrong then as Emily Itella would say, "never mind"...

From time to time the blogosphere lights up with discussions of why the meeting demographics are so thusly skewed and a common thread is the typical explanations for the "youngster boycott": kids, work, dating, evening classes...you know, life just getting in the way.

But a quick jaunt to Publix on Wednesday suffices to convince even the hardened young skeptic that not ALL our available old farts were in attendance. In fact, what little life we've remaining cuts into our day as well: fishing, hunting, bridge, golf, cleaning the dentures, cleaning the shotgun, Lawrence Welk re-runs...you get the idea.

Whether over-estimated by their few firing synapses or not, old farts do come equipped with a bit more experience, a bit more "been there done that" than youngsters, which at some previous time all old farts once were. At some point we all recognize that it is in the nature of youth to revisit our mistakes and though this is a re-run we wish not to watch, we mellow to the point of mild amusement before we turn back to the ball game and our cold beer.

Enjoy the revolution.

Bill Grossman said...

good points you make about a balanced discussion. Always better when the applicant participates in the discussion. The real issue is why are religious institutions allowed to exist in residential zoning districts to start with.

SDOC Publishing Internet Solutions said...

What revolution??? This was the biggest concession speech of my life.

Even as you ask the question about "allowing" religious institutions in residential neighborhoods, you've already been given the answer, several times, from government sources: a recent act has affirmed locations of houses of worship as a First Amendment/civil rights issue and cannot be forbidden. You can stir things up with calls for "discussion" but it's going to be moot.

I've said for a while now that one of the reasons for the conflict is the evolving idea of what is "residential". Home-based business ownership and urban farming are two of them. However, the "old guard" who claim to "preserve" their neighborhoods have also been evolving their ideas. Not long ago a church or synagogue was not even questioned as it was an inherent and necessary part of a community. That has evolved into whether they should be "allowed." IMHO, in this litigious society where all generations seek to isolate themselves from those who think or live "differently", it would be ill-advised, at best, for a place of worship to establish itself from scratch in a residential community. Even if other, older and more established communities have already done so.

Sight Edman said...

My apologies. Double entendre.

White album on in the background so I will blame it on the Beatles' "Revolution"s.