Behind one of Dunwoody Village’s busiest shopping centers, a 200-foot-wide strip of forest separates business from homes. Now it may become a legal battlefront, as the city’s plan to spur higher-density redevelopment there could trim the leafy buffer, an idea that is leading to lawsuit threats and a 1,000-signature petition.

The Peachtree Shops of Dunwoody, LLC, which owns the Shops of Dunwoody shopping center, filed an Aug. 5 notice threatening to sue the city if it requires the Planning Commission’s recommended buffer zone between the Dunwoody Village Overlay and abutting residential areas in the overlay’s zoning rewrite. The Dunwoody Homeowners Association responded by hiring an attorney to speak in support of the proposal at an Aug. 24 City Council meeting.

Neighbors stand at the tree line they want to preserve between their residential neighborhood and a Dunwoody Village Overlay commercial area. Pictured are, from left, Kate Davis and children Becca and Cooper; Sharon Frank; Scott and Amiee Doyne; Bob Leavey and his dog Rosie; and Ellen and Allen Holloway. (Erin Schilling)

“I think the heavily wooded buffer was vital to us getting a house that backed up to a shopping center,” said resident Ellen Holloway, whose house in the Branches neighborhood on Trailridge Way borders the buffer zone. “We knew there would be noises and lights, but we were reassured by the woods we would have a lot of protection.”

The council deferred the vote on the Dunwoody Village Overlay zoning rewrite and related items, including an update to the Dunwoody Village Master Plan, until its Oct. 12 meeting. Mayor Lynn Deutsch said the council will call a special meeting to have a work session to work out legal issues of the buffer zone and discuss other concerns with the rewrite, such as residential density. Once approved by council, the rezoning will immediately go into effect.

The city started a zoning rewrite of the 165-acre Dunwoody Village Overlay to create a more walkable, bikeable downtown in an area that is considered by many as the heart of the city and covers the intersection of Chamblee-Dunwoody and Mount Vernon roads. The rewrite is considered a long-term plan to have in place for when new developments may come to Dunwoody Village but does not propose specific projects.

The Dunwoody Village Overlay now includes three suburban shopping centers with expansive surface parking lots; several auto-repair shops and gas stations; office buildings; banks; and the Dunwoody United Methodist Church.

The buffer zone is where a Dunwoody Village commercial district touches a residential district outside of the overlay. Buffers have been a contentious issue as the rewrite has progressed over the past two years.

Buffer zone legalities 

Residents in neighborhoods on the west side of the Dunwoody Village commercial areas want the buffer zone to stay at least 150 feet wide to protect the trees and wildlife in that area and have an online petition with just over 1,000 signatures of its 1,500 goal as of late August in support. Right now, the buffer zone is about 150 to 200 feet wide.

Den Webb, an attorney who represents the owner of the Shops of Dunwoody at 5500 Chamblee-Dunwoody Road, gave the city an intent-to-sue notice if the buffer requirement becomes 150 feet wide in the rewrite.

Part of the legal disagreement stems from a 1977 rezoning that resulted in a 20-year covenant between the DHA and previous Shops of Dunwoody owners, which laid out a 150- to 200-foot buffer zone requirement for the west side of the zoning district.

Webb says the covenant has expired, so that buffer zone no longer has to be upheld. That buffer zone requirement would “be an attempt to reinstate a long-expired private agreement for the benefit of a small number of private property owners” and “a taking without just and adequate compensation that is unconstitutional,” according to Webb’s notice.

The Planning Commission recommends a 150-foot-wide buffer zone between the residential areas on the west side of the Dunwoody Village Overlay and the Shops of Dunwoody in the overlay district. (Special)

But the DHA says more documentation from that time period may give the city and parties involved more legal direction.

City attorney Bill Riley told the council he was working with the county to get more documentation to better address the legalities of the buffer zone as well.

Attorney Brian Daughdrill, who represents the DHA, told councilmembers on Aug. 24 that if they are considering higher-density zoning for the Dunwoody Village Overlay, they should keep the large buffer zone intact.

DHA President Adrienne Duncan said “all options are open” regarding whether the organization will also sue the city and said Daughdrill was hired to advise the neighboring residents.

Residents say keeping the buffer zone intact protects their quality of life and the deer, birds and other animals that use the area. They say the area is one of the city’s largest tree canopies.

‘We can have both’

Consultant TSW has gathered public feedback and has proposed the Dunwoody Village Overlay zoning rewrite with help from city staff over the past two years. TSW and staff initially proposed a 30-foot buffer zone, then increased it to 75 feet based on community feedback, TSW representative Caleb Racicot told the council on Aug. 24.

In March, the Planning Commission recommended a 130-foot undisturbed buffer zone with a 20-foot transitional yard, which could not have any building or parking areas but could have a concrete path or road. The buffer zone could not be under 50 feet at its most narrow point, per the commission’s recommendation.

The notice says a 150-foot buffer zone will take up about 3 acres, or 23%, of the Peachtree Shops of Dunwoody property. Webb and the owner did not respond to requests for comment, and the notice does not say what the company would prefer as the buffer zone.

All three options were presented to the council on Aug. 24. Holloway said even the Planning Commission’s recommendation is a compromise from the residents’ current buffer zone, which maxes out at 200 feet. The council made no action on any of the suggested plans and decided to have a more in-depth discussion during a called meeting.

Holloway said she’s mainly concerned for the buffer zone and feels like the commercial areas in the Dunwoody Village could use a redo.

“It is drab,” Holloway said about the Dunwoody Village area. “It is not very useful. It could be a really cute asset to our community, but all of that could be done and still maintain the tree line. We can have both, and the trees can add value to future redevelopments.”

Residents of the Holloway’s neighborhood previously considered legal action against the city because of the Shops of Dunwoody buffer zone in 2017 when dog-care business Camp Run-A-Mutt was granted a zoning variance to encroach on the adjacent Dunwoody United Methodist Church’s parking lot.

At the time, residents said the business would create noise for the neighbors, but Shops of Dunwoody agent Mike Lowery said the closest house was more than 200 feet away.

Residential density concerns

Other residents and city officials, including Deutsch, also had concerns about increasing residential density and building height in the Dunwoody Village Overlay. While some neighboring residents oppose the higher density completely, others say it’s the density that makes the buffer zone even more important.

The Dunwoody Village Overlay rezoning would be altered to create four separate districts with different land uses: DV-1 is Village Commercial; DV-2 is Village Office; DV-3 is Village Residential; and DV-4 is Village Center. Building heights would range from three stories closer to single-family neighborhoods to five stories in the central area of Dunwoody Village.

Density would be regulated by building height, Racicot told the council Aug. 24. Multi-family housing would be allowed in all four districts, and apartments would need a special land use permit. Townhouses would only be allowed in Village Commercial or Village Residential, according to a presentation about the proposed zoning rewrite.

When the zoning rewrite went in front of the Planning Commission, the DHA board said it did not want any residential uses in Dunwoody Village in a rare split vote.

“Those who voted against the residential elements believe that apartments or condos are incompatible with the purpose of the Village Overlay to provide services to the surrounding single-family neighborhoods,” Duncan said in a written statement that was read to the Planning Commission by board member Bill Grossman.