Vineville neighbors petition judge to reverse P&Z rezoning for social club

Vineville+neighbors+petition+a+judge+to+reverse+Macon-Bibb+Planning+%26+Zoning%27s+decision+to+rezone+the+old+Bennett+Estate+to+allow+for+a+social+club+with+pool+memberships+in+the+former+Historic+Single+Family+district.+

Robin Gatti

Vineville neighbors petition a judge to reverse Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning’s decision to rezone the old Bennett Estate to allow for a social club with pool memberships in the former Historic Single Family district.

The Vineville Neighborhood Association and a handful of individual property owners are headed to court to stop the proposed HoneyBee’s Social Club.

On May 24, the Macon-Bibb County Planning & Zoning Commission rezoned 2545 Vineville Ave. from Historic Residential Single Family to Historic Planned Development for the multi-faceted event center.

Macon native Elliott Dunwody VII wants to turn the historic Bennett Estate into a social club with pool memberships and an event center with overnight accommodations.

During May’s hearing, neighbors expressed concerns over noise, increased traffic and further degradation of one of the last stretches of residential homes on the busy thoroughfare.

Only Commissioner Tim Jones voted against the rezoning because of the way he perceived it would change the character of the neighborhood.

Commission chairwoman Jeane Easom, Josh Rogers and Gary Bechtel approved the move.

Rogers confessed he loves the house, but even if he could afford it, he wouldn’t move his family in because of the proximity of what is now U.S. 41.

Easom worried about the future of the house.

“This is a historically significant property and it needs to be preserved and enjoyed and used and we have a buyer here who wants to sink a good bit of money into that property,” Easom said during the commission’s May 24 administrative meeting before the hearing, which was moved to City Hall to allow for greater social distancing due to the anticipated crowd.

During testimony, Dunwody’s agent Ryan Griffin explained there was about $250,000 worth of deferred maintenance needed on top of the $510,000 purchase price.

A historic and architecturally significant pool house pergola, that was copied by the Smithsonian Institute, needs work, as does the rest of the 1917 home, he said.

Neighbors’ case for reversal

In the neighbors’ petition to the court, they note it has been an occupied home for more than 100 years and that Dunwody and Griffin presented no evidence showing it was in imminent danger of becoming blighted or “lost.”

Although the commission approved the zoning, Dunwody must return to secure a conditional use permit before he could open a business there.

One of the points of contention in the May hearing concerned having enough parking spaces. Dunwody has an agreement with Vineville Baptist Church to rent a portion of the church’s parking lot off Hines Terrace.

Rogers noted that agreement could be canceled with just 30 days notice. He encouraged Dunwody to have a more stable agreement when he comes back to secure a conditional use permit to open HoneyBee’s Social Club. The club is named in honor of the late radio trailblazer Palmyra “HoneyBee” Braswell, who lived in the guest quarters with her grandmother, who served as a cook.

During the May meeting, Chairwoman Easom, whose vote was needed to secure the rezoning, mentoined she is a member of Vineville Baptist.

In the petition to the judge, the neighbors’ attorney stated the decision was “tainted by an impermissible conflict of interest” and an “abuse of discretion,” since Easom’s church would profit from the club.

The opposition’s other points include: Dunwody does not plan to live in the house that is bordered by single-family zoning on three sides; there are no adjoining commercial properties; overnight guest quarters, community clubs and swimming clubs are not listed as conditional uses in Historic Planned Developments; the rezoning is contrary to future land use guidelines for urban residential neighborhoods, which only allow for retail and services for the needs of the immediate neighborhood, not the general public or out-of-towners; commissioners effectively “spot-zoned” the lot which goes against the commission’s goal of not isolating areas.

The petition also states the commission “erred as a matter of law” and abused its discretion in its rezoning decision by using alleged inappropriate criteria. Namely: the commission’s intention of helping Dunwody achieve the “highest and best use” of the property – which reference’s Roger’s opinion offered during deliberation; exercising its zoning powers to help property owners and real estate agents move “overpriced housing inventory;” the commission’s concern Dunwody would not be able to afford the property if he couldn’t make it a revenue-generator; the commissions’ stated fear the estate would be “lost” if it weren’t rezoned for a commercial use; and failing to show why approving Dunwody’s rezoning request outweighs the neighbors’ interest in maintaining the character and integrity of the neighborhood.

The document states the social club will harm the neighborhood with increased noise, traffic congestion, diminished property values and a reduction in the neighbors’ ability to enjoy their own properties.

What’s next?

Elliott Dunwody VII bought the Bennett Estate at 2545 Vineville Ave. after Macon-Bibb Planning & Zoning rezoned it to allow for HoneyBee’s Social Club. (Liz Fabian)

Although Dunwody was dismayed by the neighbors’ objections, he left the hearing feeling optimistic.

“The harder something is in the beginning, the better it is in the long run,” Dunwody later said, quoting words from an advisor hours after the hearing.

Before applying for the conditional use permit to begin the project, he planned to form a planning committee with neighbors. He wanted to discuss programming for the event center and further explain his plans. He feels the club is being mischaracterized as a party house for 200 people when he wants to create a more intimate, relaxing environment.

Dunwody, who works on the West Coast as an executive producer, intended to capitalize on the post-COVID era with smaller gatherings and unique events.

“I expect to go arm-and-arm with the neighborhood back to my conditional use hearing,” he said in May.

He wanted to take it slowly and spend nearly a year working on the property and giving neighbors a chance to warm up to the idea of having gospel concerts on Sunday afternoons, or relaxing by the pool since there are very few private swimming pools nearby.

Dunwody closed on the property after the hearing, but when reached Thursday he had no comment on the petition before Superior Court.

Planning & Zoning executive director Jim Thomas also declined an initial request for comment.

The commission met in executive session Monday with attorney Pope Langstaff to discuss pending litigation.

On June 23, Superior Court Clerk Erica Woodford informed the commission they have 30 days to submit to the court all related documents, recordings and transcripts of the hearing.

The petitioners’ attorney, Stuart Walker, said Judge David Mincey signed the order sanctioning the petition, but the appeal has been assigned to Judge Connie Williford.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers governmental entities in Macon-Bibb County. Contact her at 478-301-2976 or by email at [email protected]