By LAUREN ANDREWS
CANTON, Ga. – Seeking a revised home occupation approval, the founder of the Conscious Living Center requested a variance to the Cherokee County Zoning Ordinance from the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners in the setting of a public hearing on Thursday, Sept. 24.
Article 9, Section 9.3-3 of the Cherokee County Zoning Ordinance states, “No home occupation nor any storage of goods, materials, or products connected with a home occupation shall be allowed in accessory buildings or detached garages.”
Hope Merrill, founder of the Conscious Living Center, requested a rezoning of her existing business in an effort to transition out of her residence and into her neighboring guest house property.
Merrill presented her appeal to the five members of the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners, and to the 14 disagreeing homeowners in attendance from surrounding neighborhoods of the Hickory Flat community.
After listening to both parties, the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners denied the Conscious Living Center’s request for a home occupation variance.
The turning point of the public hearing was when homeowner representatives shared the website of the Conscious Living Center with the board members, revealing issues that Merrill failed to address.
“Requesting to rezone a home business from a residence to a guest house is one thing, but trying to disguise information is entirely another,” said Vicki Lee, zoning administrator for Cherokee County. “Once the business website was presented [in the hearing], the case was no longer an exclusive variance request.”
Established in 2014, the Conscious Living Center exists as an independent facility for educating individuals on how to live holistically, welcoming all people with a place to heal and grow on the 10-acre property. Various workshops are listed on the center’s website, such as “Group Healing Circle” and “Mayan Fire Ceremony.”
Regular rituals during weekend retreats are carried out at the Conscious Living Center, drawing large crowds of up to 60 attendees. Additionally, drumming meditation is held at the facility weekly on Wednesday nights until 9:30 p.m.
The perspective from most homeowners in the Hickory Flat area is that the Conscious Living Center is largely abusing the home occupation license granted to the facility in 2014. Originally, the license supported the purpose of counseling, educating and tutoring under the Canton address of 5930 Vaughn Road.
Today, the Conscious Living Center is located at 5904 Vaughn Road, directly adjacent to the original site of the business, yet with no appropriate permission to operate outside of the residence.
Based on the events throughout the past year, the majority opinion from nearby homeowners is that the business needs to seek a commercial license as opposed to a variance request, due to the magnitude of the center’s events.
Upon first glance at this public hearing case, matters seemed routine. But insider information from protesting homeowners revealed behavior that violated various codes found in the Cherokee County Zoning Ordinance.
“I think I speak for a lot of homeowners when I say I am relieved that at least now, the county is aware of what is really happening over there,” said Judy Fabiak, president of the Homeowners’ Association for Millstone Creek, a neighborhood located only a few feet away from the center.
Fabiak was one of three homeowners who spoke on behalf of the Hickory Flat community at the public hearing to protest the request from the Conscious Living Center. Prepared with accompanying pictures, Fabiak presented the board with six different codes that were repeatedly broken by Merrill’s facility.
“The biggest thing for our neighborhood is the drumming ceremonies that carry on late into the night,” said Fabiak. “The noise level is completely unacceptable and definitely breaks county ordinance.”
Apart from the noise, the parking conditions of the Conscious Living Center offered further proof of code violations to the Cherokee County Board of Commissioners.
According to Article 9, Section 9.3-6 of the Cherokee County Zoning Ordinance, “the conduct of the home occupation shall not increase the normal flow of traffic or on-street or off-street parking.”
The center’s website encourages attendees to park and carpool from Kroger, located a mile away from the business. Additionally, Fabiak presented the board with pictures of up to 30 cars lining the yard of the Conscious Living Center.
The remaining codes that were addressed by the homeowners in the public hearing included displaying business signs advertising a home occupation (9.3-3), home occupation capacity (9.3-2), and additional off-street parking requirements (9.3-12).
Unwilling to let the denied request impact her vision, Merrill said she plans to continue promoting a holistic lifestyle.
“Learning how to live consciously saved my life,” said Merrill. “People need healing, and as long as I can provide them with a place to do that, I will not shut my doors.”
Since the hearing, no retreats or large events have been reported at the Conscious Living Center. Although, the website of the Conscious Living Center has yet to be modified to reflect the enforcements from the public hearing. Merrill is permitted to run her business only out of her home residence, and within the original guidelines in which she was granted the home occupation license.
To ensure the facility continues to conform to the Cherokee County Zoning Ordinance, homeowners are encouraged to contact the county with any further violations.