Second of a two-part series
Albemarle County Board of Supervisors
has approved a special use permit from
First Nazarene Church
that will allow them to construct a new 374-seat multipurpose center near the intersection of Route 250 and Route 22 near Keswick. The rezoning came despite opposition from neighbors who felt the proposed facility was too large for the area, and would encroach upon the
Southern Mountains Rural Historic District
At the item’s first public meeting on November 7, 2007, the Board suggested that the proposed 18,811 square feet was out of scale with the rural areas portion of the Comprehensive Plan. After that, the Church submitted a new plan that reduced the facility by over 4,000 square feet. However, the proposed capacity remained the same.
The church currently rents space from the Covenant School. The new facility will be built on the southern edge of a huge parcel of land owned by Albemarle Edgehill Farm LLC. The church will be constructed on a 7 acre section of the property just south of I-64 and just north of Route 250. Other properties in the surrounding area that have uses not consistent with the rural area include a gas station, an Albemarle Bank, the Shadwell store, and Stone-Robinson School. A quarry operated by Luck Stone is just to the west.
The church was represented before the Board by Valerie Long of the firm Williams & Mullen. She said the Church needs a new modern facility to support their growing congregation, and has been searching for a new home for the past five years. Today, they have over 200 members, but anticipate modest growth in the future. At the moment, they lack nursery space for children during Sunday services. Long called the new facility “particularly efficient” in its use of space. In fact, the sanctuary can be used as a basketball court, a key part of the Church’s outreach efforts.
“I personally believe that a church of a modest size and scale can really be a very appropriate use for this property,” Long said. She added that it would not add to the commercial nature of the area and would not impact any of the residential properties and farms that are part of the Historic District.
Comments during the public hearing were split between parishioners who pleaded for a new home, and neighbors who thought the church was too large for the property.
Brenda Hill said a new facility is needed so her grandchildren will have a place to worship into the future. Brian Young served on the Church’s relocation committee and said the reduction of space requested by the Board was a tough sacrifice to have to make. Church treasurer Jamie Townsend was overcome with emotion and said the Church has provided tremendous value to her family. Several other congregation members spoke as well.
But, many neighbors also spoke about their desire to preserve the rural area.
Jerry Lee Chafin of Keswick said the convergence of Routes 250 and 22 creates a dangerous corner and increased traffic will cause accidents. Jim Ballheim said the church was “simply too big” and would change the area to a more suburban character. Ed Bain worried that the special use permit would set a precedent for other rural areas along Route 250. Pat Napoleon wondered if there was a need for basketball programs in Keswick, and suggested that the congregation should build in the City of Charlottesville. Former Board of Supervisor candidate Peter Hallock said he has worked hard to put areas of that section of the County under easement to preserve the rural character. He added that the County should set a limit on the size of churches in rural areas.
Jeff Werner of the
Piedmont Environmental Council
said his organization did not oppose the church, but was concerned about the scale of the church, even with the reductions. He pointed out that the housing dilemma faced by First Church of the Nazarene is part of a growing trend of expanding churches seeking new homes in the rural areas, which are more affordable.
“And as with the ongoing discussion you’re having about available land for light industrial space, it might be in the County’s interest to look deeper into this trend and to seek solutions which keep churches within the growth area and near the residents that benefit from their work and from their mission.”
When the matter came before the Board, Supervisor
(Jack Jouett) said local authorities have to abide by the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, which limits the power of local governments to place land use restrictions on places of worship. The legislation reads as follows:
“No government shall impose or implement a land use regulation in a manner that imposes a substantial burden on the religious exercise of a person, including a religious assembly or institution, unless the government demonstrates that imposition of the burden on that person, assembly, or institution – (A) is in furtherance of a compelling governmental interest; and (B) is the least restrictive means of furthering that compelling governmental interest.”
“If you’re going to take an action, it has to be the least restrictive measure to fulfill that compelling government interest,” Rooker said. He said that the First Church of the Nazarene has responded to the Board’s requests, and received his vote. “There are other churches in the vicinity that have been approved of a comparable size, and as staff pointed out, the County has previously approved other churches of similar size in the rural areas and there is insufficient evidence in the record to establish that this application is materially different.”
(Scottsville) said he would support the special use permit because the rural area in question is already fairly commercial. He also pointed out that the County would likely face a lawsuit if it did not grant the permit.
(Samuel Miller) said she would not support the permit out of traffic and water concerns.
“I think Congress has tied our hands in a way that our local citizens should be outraged about,” Thomas said. “But since they’re not, and since this law has sat there on the books with apparently no opposition for some time, I think we probably will vote to adopt this land use whether we’re comfortable with it or not.”
(Rio) requested that when permits for rural churches come before the Board in the future, staff prepare a deeper analysis of the phrase “compelling governmental interest.”
“I’m operating in this decision under the assumption that we’re not constrained in our ability to deny based on this law, but I’d like to know that for future instances,” Slutzky said.
(White Hall), appearing at his last Board meeting, made a motion to approve the resolution. Slutzky seconded, and the vote was 5 to 1, with Thomas voting against.
The item will now go before the
Architectural Review Board
at a date to be determined.