DUNWOODY, Ga. – Well, that didn’t really go as planned.
The beginning of 2020 in Dunwoody was filled with promise. Lynn Deutsch, the city’s first female mayor, was sworn into office, a new 950-student Austin Elementary opened its doors and the City Council was making significant progress crafting changes that would make the city more pedestrian- and bike-friendly.
Dunwoody’s businesses were thriving, residential and commercial real estate was booming and everything was going as planned.
That is, until COVID-19 arrived.
The first indication of trouble was reported in the Crier on March 12, about the first confirmed cases in Georgia, several Fulton County residents who contracted the virus after returning from a trip to Italy. It became front page news after that, as the city, businesses and individuals were faced with fighting an invisible disease about which little was known.
The world as Dunwoody knew it came to an abrupt halt in the spring. City officials closed down non-essential government services in mid-March, halted in-person meetings and instituted a shelter-in-place order on March 26. DeKalb County Schools moved to virtual instruction in mid-March. The City Council’s attempt to institute a mask ordinance in July was thwarted by Georgia Gov. Brian Kemp, who declared that local governments could not pass harsher mandates than what had been outlined in his executive order.
Local restaurants and Dunwoody’s non-profit organizations were forced to change the way business was conducted. City officials helped by relaxing restrictions on outdoor dining, issuing rent forgiveness and distributing federal, state and local relief funds to area nonprofits. Some of Dunwoody’s most treasured traditions, including Lemonade Days and the annual Fourth of July parade, were cancelled.
During the summer, as the number of COVID cases ebbed, there was talk of DeKalb County schools reopening, but the established benchmark of 100 cases per 100,000 residents could not be reached, and the 2020-21 academic year opened with virtual instruction. In mid-December, the school district announced a phased-in approach for in-person instruction that will begin Jan. 19.
As the number of virus infections flattened out, restrictions loosened, and restaurants and some public facilities opened with safety protocols in place. The arts community stepped up to participate in the city’s picnic table project, which allowed local restaurants to expand outdoor seating in a colorful and artsy manner.
The Dunwoody City Council in November adopted an austere $24.5 million 2021 budget, reflecting a sagging economy that experts say may drag into 2023. The budget reflected a 4.2 percent reduction to various departments, including 12 percent trimmed from the Parks Department, 15 percent taken from the Community Development Department, almost 9 percent from the Police Department, and 30 percent reduced from the Communications Department.
Even with those reductions, the city’s reserve fund was projected to shrink from almost eight months in reserves in 2020 to a projected four-month reserve by the end of 2021. Officials warned that a slow rebound may force a first-time increase in Dunwoody’s property tax rate.
It wasn’t all about COVID-19 during the year. There was a sprinkling of good, bad and ugly news throughout the year unrelated to the pandemic.
Sexual harassment charges
In July, Dunwoody Police Chief Billy Grogan published a 146-page report detailing dozens of allegations of sexual harassment and unprofessional conduct by senior officers within the department. The most damning claims were lodged against former Lt. Fidel Espinoza, who had resigned from the force in May. Two former officers accused Espinoza of sending explicit text messages to them, demanding they reciprocate, and lodging false accusations against them in a systematic attempt to ruin their reputations. The city has not publicly commented since the report was published, citing pending litigation.
Road, sidewalk improvements
Dunwoody moved forward with several significant initiatives designed to move the city ahead, albeit on much smaller scale than intended. According to Dunwoody Public Works Director Michael Smith, the city made crosswalk improvements on Mount Vernon and North Peachtree Roads, completed the first section of a shared-use path on North Shallowford Road, finished sidewalk and road improvements on Roberts Drive in front of Austin Elementary, repaired more than 500 sidewalks throughout the city, and began work on sidewalk and bicycle lanes on Tilly Mill and Peeler Roads.
In addition, the city paved more than 12 miles of road. At Brook Run Park, two multi-purpose fields, the Great Lawn, a picnic pavilion and a disc golf course opened. Work began on the conversion of the former Waterford Club into a park, and the old Austin Elementary was demolished. Dunwoody officials are asking for community feedback as to its future use.
Dunwoody Village Overlay District
After months of debate and adjustments based on community feedback, the Dunwoody City Council in December adopted a massive rezoning of the Dunwoody Village area that put in place height restrictions for new commercial and residential developments and required developers to install streetlights, benches and large sidewalks as part of new construction within the district. A last-minute lawsuit filed by attorney Kathy Zickert on behalf of two businesses within the overlay threatened to derail the process, so officials passed the rezoning, excluding those properties until key issues are resolved.
Proposed charter changes
For only the second time since Dunwoody incorporated, a charter commission, headed by former City Councilman Robert Wittenstein, met to discuss recommendations to the existing charter. The recommendations, which must be approved by the Georgia General Assembly before being put to a referendum, include changing the term limits for the mayor from two consecutive terms to three consecutive terms; limiting council terms to three consecutive stints, supporting the election of council members with a plurality of 45 percent rather than a majority of 50 percent and shifting the election for mayor by two years to coincide with the district elections effective in 2025. The most controversial topic the commission discussed never made it to the recommendation stage – raising the cap on the city’s millage rate.
New faces/significant losses
Longtime Spruill Center CEO Robert Kinsey retired after 16 years in that position, and Alan Mothner, who had been at the helm at the Dunwoody Nature Center, took over the reins. Faced with significant losses in revenue because of the pandemic, Mothner took on as one of his first initiatives moving to virtual instruction and COVID-safe activities.
Austin Elementary School Principal Ann Culbreath retired in October. During her tenure, Austin was consistently ranked as one of Georgia’s top elementary schools.
Stage Door’s artistic director Robert Egizio was furloughed in early September, and subsequently fired, causing consternation among patrons and a shakeup in the organization’s board of directors. The theatre was preparing to gear up in the spring, but the pandemic forced the cancellation of the entire season.
Former Brookhaven Mayor and veteran journalist Rebecca Chase Williams died in March after a long battle with cancer.
Bev Wingate, a community activist and tireless advocate for cityhood, was commended for her philanthropy, and on her birthday, Aug. 9, the council dedicated a day in her honor.