In 2010, Michael McMillen and his son, Justin, purchased the former auto repair business, Georgia Auto Electric, located at 3691 Atlanta Road, intending to live there and practice their craft, which they describe as a “religious counseling” business.
The family asked in 2010 that the property, which was zoned commercial, be changed to allow them to live and work on site, a request the Board of Commissioners denied. The board also changed the property’s zoning to residential at the time.
The family sued the county in Cobb Superior Court, but given the zoning rule that a case can be heard again after one year, they withdrew the lawsuit and asked the Planning Commission again Tuesday to approve the zoning change.
An office, not a residence
This time, they agreed they would just use the space as an office, not as a residence.
Attorney James Balli, who represents the family, urged the Planning Commission to approve the zoning request.
“The proposed use of this property is an office space for religious-based counseling use,” Balli said. “It is based on the applicants’ religion. It is not simply a mere business operation. There’s been a little bit of confusion and maybe some misinformation. Their use is not as seen at the movies. There’s no crystal balls or outlandish uniforms or costumes in this business. It is simply a religious-based counseling business that is done indoors in an office setting.”
Balli told the Journal after the meeting that the family is part of the ethnic group known as Romani.
National Geographic describes the Romani as a people who migrated from India to Europe in the 1300s.
They are also known as Gypsies, although some consider that word to be a slur.
“They were persecuted, and about 1.5 million died in the Holocaust, and they immigrated to various countries,” Balli said. “There’s been a lot of misunderstandings and stereotypes that a lot of us in today’s day and age do not approve of that seem to still be generally acceptable as it relates to people of Romani descent. There are no crystal balls. People come in to obtain counseling. I mean, the first lady of the United States, Nancy Reagan, engaged in similar counseling.”
John Pederson, the county’s zoning division manager, said the family already operates psychic reading businesses in Cobb at the following locations: Psychic Readings by Gina at 2672 Austell Road; Atlanta’s Psychic Ashley at 3010 Roswell Road; Psychic Readings by Jennifer at 3497 Canton Road; and Psychic Answers by Jennifer at 2998 Powder Springs Road.
Balli said the family would limit the hours of use from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Monday to Saturday by appointment only, would not use any neon signs and would remodel the auto shop building to look like an office.
“The end result is you’ll have a building that is designed and appears appropriate for any office-related use, including the use proposed by these applicants,” Balli said.
First to speak against the request was Chuck Hamilton, an attorney who lives next door and practices in Vinings. Hamilton said the entire 38-home neighborhood that wraps around the property in question is opposed to the zoning request.
“I will credit counsel for couching this in some respects as a religious issue and a person’s wanting to practice or counsel their religion,” Hamilton said. “This is not a religious issue. This is business, zoning and regulation type of issue.”
Neighbors object: ‘There’s a stigma’
Hamilton said the county has every right to regulate what businesses are appropriate for what areas.
“If it were a massage parlor, if it were an adult bookstore, the Constitution says you can have those kinds of businesses, you can have your vocation, but it’s not appropriate to have those kinds of businesses in any location that you want to,” he said.
Hamilton said having such an operation in the neighborhood would hurt his property values.
“There’s a stigma about these kinds of businesses,” he said. “If they didn’t recognize that, they wouldn’t have gone through ‘things are not like they show in the movies’ and so forth, rightly or wrongly.”
Neighbor Patti Crenshaw said she was opposed to any psychic, Tarot card or palm-readings business opening up there as well.
“This is an area along Atlanta Road that has worked very hard over the last 10 years from Cumberland Parkway all the way past Smyrna Village to bring in more upscale residential communities along that area, and it’s been very successful,” Crenshaw said. “There are brand new homes directly across from this commercial area that are coming in there. So people are not afraid to build on Atlanta Road if they have good protective zoning to go along with it.”
Debra Radcliff, who lives behind the property, referenced the applicants’ Canton Road business, which she said has a sign stating “psychic readings.”
“This is not the type of business that I think our community deserves,” she said.
Mary Rose Barnes, speaking for the Oakdale Community Association, also asked the proposal be denied.
The Planning Commission voted 4-0 to recommend the zoning be changed to low rise office with a prohibition on a psychic reading practice.
The matter now heads to the April 16 meeting of the Board of Commissioners.