Smyrna residents fighting daycare expansion, allege council favoritism

Smyrna residents oppose plans by a former city councilman to expand his day care business in their neighborhood under a zoning rule change enacted while he was on the council.

The Cheney Woods residents argue expansion of the Oxford Academy day care centers off Church Street and Flagler Circle would hurt their property values and further impede traffic in an already high-volume area. The uproar from residents led the former councilman, Jimmy Smith, to revise his day care expansion proposal last week, but some residents are still not satisfied.

Smith and his wife, Cindy, began operating the private day care in a renovated home on Church Street years ago. They expanded the business to another house on the same street in 2008 after the City Council changed Smyrna's zoning rules to allow day nurseries and kindergartens to be located in residential areas. Under the provisions of that change, the Smiths had planned to renovate a third house on Flagler Circle, an adjacent street.

Smith served two terms on the council from 2003 to 2011 and did not seek re-election last year. The zoning change was made in 2006.

To placate residents, Smith now is proposing to not put day care in the Flagler house, and instead wants to expand the day care business into his own home on Church Street, according to a June 26 letter from his attorney, Garvis Sams.

"We see the wisdom in trying to address and resolve the concerns of the neighborhood, and that's what we're trying to do with the settlement," Sams said.

Bonnie Berry, who lives on Flagler Circle and has been one of the main opponents of the proposal, said the change benefits her street but is not the optimal solution because it still would expand day care in the residential area. Ultimately, the zoning change should be repealed, she said.

"Our general feeling is that Smith ran for City Council so that he could make his dreams of Oxford Academy a reality," said Berry, who has been negotiating with the Smiths on an individual basis and said she's close to an agreement on the revised plans. Smith did not return a call seeking comment.

Only one other applicant, Smyrna Montessori School, has taken advantage of the zoning change, said Ken Suddreth, Smyrna's community development director.

"The fact is, you're removing the serenity and safety of the neighborhood," said Deborah Tompkins, who lives in a house between the two existing day care facilities on Church Street and testified against the expansion at a council meeting this week. The area around the day cares already includes two churches, a funeral home and a city senior center. "Eventually this is no longer a community and quiet neighborhood; it's a business," she said.

Concilwoman Susan Wilkinson, who took Smith's place on the council, wants the day nurseries and kindergartens provision of the zoning ordinance removed. Smyrna's planning and zoning board is set to take up the issue Monday, and the council is set to discuss revising the ordinance July 16.