The Cheney Woods residents suspect political favoritism and unethical maneuvers on the part of city officials allowed Oxford Academy to manipulate the city’s zoning ordinance. Tonight, they plan to speak out publically at a Smyrna City Council meeting.
“We feel like we are being taken over by a commercial day care enterprise,” Bonnie Berry said.
Bonnie and her husband, Don, live two doors down on Flagler Circle from Oxford in a home Don’s family has lived in since the 1960s.
The couple alleges that Smith, who co-owns Oxford with his wife, Cindy, used his influence during his tenure on the council to get Smyrna’s zoning ordinance amended in order to allow day care centers such as his to move into areas zoned for residential use.
“He was our councilman at the time,” Bonnie said. “That was a conflict of interest and he never told any of the residents of Ward 5 about this change.”
Oxford provides child care learning for infants, toddlers and preschoolers on weekdays. It’s located in a renovated facility with a semicircular driveway and small parking area on Church Street at Flagler Circle.
Several years ago, Oxford moved to Church Street on property zoned for commercial use, amid protest from neighbors. It expanded a few years ago to an adjacent house that was strictly zoned residential until the amendment. There are now plans to renovate a third house next door on Flager Circle and to pave the front yard for a parking lot.
But the Berrys and other neighbors are determined to stop that from happening. They want to repeal the amendment. They fear property values will drop by as much as 40 percent, increase traffic and that little is in the way of Smith turning much of the neighborhood into a large day care complex.
James and Juanita Smalley have lived on Flager Circle for 48 years and weren’t worried about Oxford’s presence as a small facility until its expansion.
“It was just a quiet neighborhood,” Juanita Smalley said. “We never thought of anything like this happening.”
Smith was unavailable for an interview for this story.
In 2011, he told the Journal that he would not seek re-election that November in order to concentrate on other endeavors that he did not specify at the time. Smith — who lives next door to Oxford on Church Street — had served on the council since 2003.
In 2006, Smyrna City Council members voted 5-0 to amend the city’s R15 zoning to allow for “day nurseries and kindergartens” with a few provisions. Smith and another council member were absent from the vote.
City administrator Eric Taylor said he is unaware of any impropriety on behalf of city officials concerning the amendment.
“Jimmy wasn’t even present the night it was voted on,” Taylor said.
“We got several inquiries from folks who wanted to put in day care centers. We were unable to allow them to do it, so the city council at the time didn’t see a problem with it. Zoning already allowed for churches and schools in R-15 residential districts, so they went ahead and extended it out to day cares.”
Taylor said that non-residential properties such as Carmichael Funeral Home, Faith Christian Center and the city-operated Aline Wolfe Adult Recreation Center for seniors, have all been located across from the neighborhood on Church Street since before the issue aroused.
In addition, he said the Smyrna Montessori School opened under the same zoning amendment on King Springs Road.
However, commercial real estate professional Alan Aycock, Ph.D. of Sugar Hill said there is no other place in metro Atlanta area with such a zoning amendment. Aycock is Bonnie’s uncle who said he has been studying the issue closely.
Rather than going through the typical process of changing the area to commercial zoning to expand Oxford, officials simply amended the zoning ordinance to specifically allow day care centers in purely residential zoning, he said. Changing it to commercial zoning would have required the posting of notices, public ads and public meetings, he said.
“This is the worst example of bad zoning and bad land planning I’ve seen in 32 years,” Aycock said.
“Nobody in the circular metro area – city of Marietta, Cobb, Gwinnett, Cherokee, Roswell, Duluth and Forsyth to name a few – allow day care centers in residential zoning. You have to have commercial zoning in order to do that.”
Residents say they don’t understand why Oxford doesn’t want to move into a more suitable commercial area elsewhere in Smyrna, which has been struggling to fill vacant commercial spaces around the city. Responses to their concerns by Mayor Max Bacon, council members, and planning and zoning officials have been poor, they said.
Ward 5 Councilwoman Susan Wilkinson, who replaced Smith, declined to take a firm stand on the issue. But she said she has met in recent weeks with city staffers to take a closer look at the amendment.
“I can understand both sides of this story as far as from the residential and owners’ perspectives,” she said. “I’m not really sure one way or the other, but I would like to explore with the council different options. Right now, that’s where I am.”
Taylor said Smith has submitted preliminary plans for the expansion but was told by staff in the Community Development Department that some revisions were needed, such as those pertaining to drainage.
Judy Davila of Woodstock is Smith’s estranged older sister who sides with the residents. She manages the property next door to the site in question that is owned by another younger brother, David Smith of Texas. She called Jimmy Smith’s business actions “underhanded.”
“When he changed that (ordinance) it was totally for his own personal benefit,” she said.
The Smyrna City Council will meet at 7:30 p.m. tonight at City Hall, 2800 King St.