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Churches Can Tell City Zoning: Fuhgeddaboudit!

Seems folks weren't aware of churches’ rights in zoning issues.

I am not a child of the '50s or '60s, but a child of television.

I say that because on Wednesday night at the Chesterfield City Council meeting I thought both of an old Steve Allen routine on the Tonight Show and Gilda Radner’s character Emily Litella from Saturday Night Live.

Allen used to put on a fedora with a press card in the hat band and then read actual letters to the editor from the paper in an angry and agitated voice. When Steve was done reading, the letter he read seemed silly.

Radner's character was a hard-of-hearing woman who would give angry editorials on such subjects as “Eagle Rights Amendment.” "conserving natural racehorses," “busting schoolchildren” or “endangered feces.”  When Chevy Chase would correct her character, she would pause; look in the camera and say: “Nevermind."

A couple from a subdivision along Schoettler Road in Chesterfield spoke at the beginning of the meeting in opposition to the bill being first read to rezone the 5.23 acres occupied by the Church of the Resurrection on the corner of Schoettler Road and South Outer Forty from Non-Urban to Residential R-2 Zoning.  

The wife told the council how she was raised in Chesterfield, moved away but then came back and found Schoettler Road to be beautiful, just like something you would see in a TV commercial representing rolling countryside. She urged the council to protect the beauty of the street, stop any changes to the street and keep accidents from increasing by denying the rezoning and stopping expansion of the church.

The husband then spoke and added the council should deny the rezoning to protect property values.

Here's the catch.

For the last several decades Federal Court and Supreme Court rulings have made churches and schools exempt from city and county zoning laws. A church can be built in any zoned area, including residential, commercial, industrial and even adult entertainment districts and local government cannot keep them out.   

Churches are protected by the First Amendment in the Bill of Rights and the Constitution. It is commonly referred to as “Freedom of Religion.”

Local zoning laws can protect adjacent property owners from such things as storm water runoff from a church’s parking lot. The local codes can require visible exit signs and fire code regulations or keep parking lot entrances away from a busy intersection. But they cannot keep a church from being built. Also local laws cannot govern such things as signs, steeples, crosses or other religious symbols.

The proposal to change the zoning from Non-Urban to R-2 Residential actually protects the surrounding property owners. The change means only residential single family homes, churches or schools could ever be built on the property.

Mayor Bruce Geiger explained this after the couple spoke. He also pointed out the public could see the plans for the church project and speak at Planning and Zoning and future Council meetings about the plans, but not about keeping the church from simply expanding.    

I spoke to the couple after the meeting. They read about the rezoning on Patch. They had not been aware of the rights afforded the church until the mayor told them. In other words, was it a “Never Mind”?

I pointed out that a church normally just increases traffic on Sunday mornings when traffic is light.  

“That’s not true. There were a lot of cars there tonight.” I hated to mention that it was Ash Wednesday.   

After the meeting I spoke with two people from the church. The pastor said the city hall staff in the planning department had asked the church to request the zoning change when the church went to submit building plans. The city has been eliminating the old “Non-Urban” zoning designation over the years and wanted to do so in the case of the church property.

The two people from the church knew they did not have to meet any zoning requirements and did not legally need city approval for specific sections of the church’s expansion. “We just want to try and get along with our neighbors,” said the pastor.

I know of three cases where churches just east of Chesterfield wanted to get along with city officials and neighbors when they didn’t have to. In one case it involved a cross and two others involved signs.

In these cases the churches have hired lawyers and engineers dipping into church coffers, just to be “nice” trying to get along when they didn’t have to.

I hope this isn’t the case here. The Church of the Resurrection wants to get along with everyone. They know this is impossible, but they want to try.

I think they need to spend their funds on the church expansion and not on lawyers while trying to be nice, when our laws say they don’t have to.    

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