Judge: Macon-Bibb P&Z “abused its discretion” in Vineville social club rezoning

Bibb Superior Court Judge Connie Williford annuls P&Z’s decision concerning ‘HoneyBee’s’ commercial use in Vineville Historic District


Liz Fabian

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

A Bibb County Superior Court judge has reversed rezoning in the Vineville neighborhood that came with a proposal to turn the old Bennett Estate into “HoneyBee’s Guesthouse and Social Club” with pool memberships and rooms for rent.

Last week, Judge Connie L. Williford ruled the Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Commission erred in rezoning 2545 Vineville Ave. from Historic Residential to Historic Planned Development.

Elliott Dunwody VII, who grew up in Macon but has been working on the West Coast in the entertainment industry, had a contract on the house contingent on the rezoning. He closed on the property three weeks after the rezoning, which is now invalid.

In making his argument as to why the 7-bedroom property has outlived its usefulness as a single-family residence, Dunwody told commissioners he needed to generate revenue to perform needed repairs and maintain the historic property that was built around 1917.

His agent and childhood friend, Ryan Griffin, told commissioners there was about $250,000 work of deferred maintenance on top of the $510,000 purchase price and an undetermined cost of renovations for the more than 100-year-old home.

Last May, commissioners voted 3 to 1 in favor of rezoning, but Dunwody still would have needed to come back before P&Z for conditional use approval for the commercial venture. Commissioners encouraged him to sort out parking arrangements and win over the neighbors who opposed the plan. He was optimistic he would be able to smooth things over and planned to proceed slowly with his plans over the next few years.

“I hope that any opposition only leads to this being a better project for the neighborhood. I am listening,” Dunwody told the Center for Collaborative Journalism last May.

Instead, the neighborhood association petitioned the judge for a reversal of the decision.

One of the neighbor’s opposition letters presented to the court questioned why Dunwody would proceed with the project after the association voted against it on May 5.

The deadline to apply for the May 24 hearing was weeks before that neighborhood vote. Dunwody also said in the meeting that since the purchase of the house was contingent on the rezoning, he had to pursue the application or risk being in default of the contract.

Vineville neighbors petitioned 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 Historic District. (Robin Gatti)

P&Z received more than a dozen letters in opposition, including ones from the Vineville Neighborhood Association and the Georgia Trust for Historic Preservation. Historic Macon sent a letter deferring to the associations’ decision. Petitions with dozens of signatures were submitted and nearby residents spoke against rezoning, but only P&Z Commissioner Tim Jones voted against it. Commissioner Bryan Scott was absent.

“My big concern is about the peace and solitude of surrounding neighbors,” Jones said in the hearing.

Three other commissioners stated concerns the house had been on the market for three years without a buyer and could fall into disrepair.

P&Z Commissioner Gary Bechtel discounted the organizations’ letters saying that from his political experience “anybody can get anybody to say anything.”

P&Z Chairwoman Jeane Easom, who is a commercial real estate appraiser, said she believed the proposal was the “highest and best use” for the property.

“I’m concerned about the house itself,” Easom said. “We’ve lost too many gems in Macon and if we’re not careful we”ll lose this one.”

P&Z Commissioner Josh Rogers also sided with Dunwody and Griffin. Rogers said the hope for leaving that stretch of Vineville as single-family ended 50 years ago when the street, also known as U.S. Hwy. 41, became a major thoroughfare.

“The neighborhood association has gotten this wrong,” Rogers said in the May hearing. “I think this is an asset to the neighborhood. I think it’s something that would add value. And, from a preservation perspective, I think this is the mostly likely scenario to generate the resources to sustain the physical structure.”

Rogers admitted it was one of his favorite residences, but said even if he could afford it, he wouldn’t move his family there because of the proximity to the busy street.

Rogers said he felt the social club could be “an improvement to Macon,” but had reservations about the vote. He said Dunwody was “asking a lot of this commission to overrule this many people.”

Because of the opposition to Dunwody’s plan and a separate commercial development project on Zebulon Road, last May’s hearing was moved to City Hall to accommodate the crowd and allow for social distancing due to the COVID-19 pandemic.

Judge Connie L. Williford

In Williford’s ruling, she chided commissioners for not considering the six mandatory criteria set before them when rezoning property and not acting in the best interest of neighbors.

“The question is not whether the proposed rezoning would be an improvement to the wider Macon community, but whether it would be suitable considering the adjacent and nearby property,” Williford said in her final order.

The judge cited the six criteria for rezoning:

  • Zoning proposal will permit a use that is suitable in view of the use and development of adjacent and nearby property;
  • Whether the zoning proposal will adversely affect the existing use or usability of adjacent of nearby property;
  • Whether the property to be affected by the zoning proposal has reasonable economic use as currently zoned;
  • Whether the zoning proposals will result in a use which will or could cause excessive or burdensome use of existing streets, transportation facilities, utilities or schools;
  • Whether the zoning proposal is in conformity with the policy and intent of the land use plan;
  • Whether there are other existing or changing conditions affecting the use and development of the property which give supporting grounds for either approval or disapproval of the zoing proposal.

Williford called the rezoning an “error of law.” She said “funding work to keep up historic nature of the house cannot be what is meant by ‘enhance the historic character of the surrounding area.'”

The judge’s order stated that although she sympathizes with P&Z’s position that its governing code deserves a “‘squishy’ interpretation in light of its age and dated relevance to modern civilization in 2021, the solution to aging codes is to update them so as to put the community on notice of the change rather than to reinterpret them.”

Pope Langstaff, P&Z’s attorney, had asked for the neighbors’ petition to be dismissed for a variety of reasons including that there was no fraud, corruption or manifest abuse of the zoning power.

Macon-Bibb County Planning and Zoning Executive Director Jim Thomas said Langstaff will brief commissioners Monday and discuss options.

Dunwody and his attorney, Steven Bloodworth, said they are still considering their next steps and declined initial comment on the ruling.

Civic Journalism Senior Fellow Liz Fabian covers Macon-Bibb County government entities and can be reached at [email protected] or 478-301-2976.