Greg Quinn, a self-described constitutional conservative, found himself in a “conundrum” before the Albemarle County Planning Commission this week. His mission: Seek local government’s help intervening in a neighbor’s building plans .
The backyard neighbor? A non-denominational Christian church seeking to build a 400-seat sanctuary, and a less than regulation size soccer field, on 21 wooded acres in the county’s rural area off Dickerson Road. The congregation currently holds services at Sutherland Middle School .
In recent years, Quinn has been a critic of the county’s sustainability initiatives and programs aimed at reducing carbon emissions. He lobbied successfully, with the local Tea Party , to get the county to withdraw its membership in ICLEI , citing inappropriate intervention by the United Nations and the federal government in local policy.
“My land is mine, it’s deeded in my name, and until Albemarle County or the rest of the community owns it, it’s my business what I do with my land,” Quinn told the Albemarle supervisors in February 2011. “I’m getting sick and tired of being told what to do, especially by the international community.”
At Tuesday’s meeting, Quinn told the commission he was a strong proponent of private property rights, but he thought the plan could be improved.
“I am not opposed to a church, but what I am opposed to is the impact to Piney Mountain and the close proximity to the road,” Quinn said. “We’ve got bird watchers and Tea Partiers on the same mountain, and we all get along very well.”
County staff recommended approval of the development plan from New Hope Community Church for its building, parking lot and soccer field. There are limits on local government’s regulation of churches because of protections afforded by the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution and federal law.
“We are trying to keep as many trees on the property as possible,” said Edmond Blackwell, of Blackwell Engineering, on behalf of the church. “We have the [development] compacted in two tight areas, the church area and parking, and the recreational field up the hill.”
The commission learned that the handful of neighbors on Piney Mountain have become accustomed to living in a “gated community.” A gate on Piney Mountain Road helps discourage visitors to an FAA radar facility, communications antennas and a Rivanna Water & Sewer Authority water supply tank.
“There’s a character of Piney Mountain Road that the plan I am looking at does not respect,” said Charles Boldt, who owns 72 acres next to the church site. “The proposed development is going to alter in a very negative way the physical and visual environment of the neighbors.”
Quinn said he was concerned about people trespassing on his property, that he would have to forego some hunting if a soccer field was nearby, and that the project would have some visual impacts.
“I am a little concerned with the [design], which I don’t know if you can control, but it’s a shed, metal-type building,” Quinn told the commission. “I’d love to see a country church with a steeple.”
Several neighbors also expressed disappointment that the church had not approached them before submitting their plans to the county.
It was enough of a debate to have Commissioner Richard Randolph invoke scripture and ask the church why they hadn’t consulted with the neighbors and two other churches adjacent to the property.
“Your church is a Christian church? I think the concept of ‘love thy neighbor’ is part of the teaching of Jesus,” Randolph said. “I am just dumbfounded that a church is coming into this location …. This is not a level site, this is a site on slopes.”
“Hearing the concerns, it’s probably an error on my part for not getting with the neighbors,” Blackwell responded. “We want to be a good neighbor.”
The Planning Commission made numerous suggestions to address the neighbors’ concerns, which included moving or shrinking the soccer field, or replacing it altogether with a basketball court. The commission also questioned if the church had an established athletics program.
“I read an article this week where 42 percent of Americans are going to be obese by 2030,” pastor Michael Henderson responded. “We just felt like if we had the opportunity and the land to put a soccer field in, if kids want to come play, [they could].”
After the public hearing, the church agreed to defer its plans indefinitely for the soccer field. The commission unanimously agreed to recommend approval for the church facility and a related critical slopes waiver, both of which will be considered at a future meeting of the Albemarle supervisors.
In the hall after the vote, Quinn called for “common sense” to prevail.
“I feel like I am in a conundrum, because I believe in freedom, but freedom requires personal responsibility, not by mandate, but by neighbors getting together before we do something,” Quinn said. “I guess government can come in and be a referee in the sense that you don’t build a dynamite factory next to a school …. That’s common-sense zoning.”