McMinnville is reconsidering its stance regarding neighborhood churches. If a measure to change city Zoning Code is approved, no new churches will be built in residential zones.
The change is an effort to protect neighborhoods from activities that might not be as welcome as places of worship have been.
According to city Community Development Department director David Baird, a federal law called The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act could result in community centers moving into former church buildings currently located in residential districts.
“Basically, it says that you cannot treat non-religious activities any different than religious activities for land use purposes,” said Baird. “A community center functions basically the same way as a church. People park their cars. They go in, have a meeting and then they leave. Federal law says you cannot treat the church different than a non-religious activity.”
Concerns about that law and its negative effect on residential neighborhoods were raised during Tuesday’s McMinnville Regional Planning Commission meeting.
In April, commission members were asked to consider amending the city’s zoning restrictions to allow for other uses of old church buildings.
“Even with our supercharged real estate market, many of these church buildings have either not yet sold or have taken a significant time to find a buyer,” said Baird.
The former home of Calvary Baptist Church is one of those. Located at 525 West End Avenue, it has been on the market for about a year. Church members have expressed an interest in the building being used as a counseling center.
However, as discussed in April, Calvary Baptist Church is in an R-2, medium density residential district. Permitted uses within that district are single-family detached and two-family dwellings. With permission from the city via a special exception, churches are permitted. Counseling centers are not allowed, even with a special exception.
Baird recommended the city amend its Zoning Code to remove the word “church” and replace it with “place of public assembly, indoor” which would allow for former church buildings to be used as community centers and charitable or social organizations.
“This amendment is warranted so the city can become fully in compliance with the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act which was enacted to ensure that religious and non-religious functions are given the same rights under the law,” said Baird, who says the change would allow other use options for former church buildings.
Commission members expressed concern for activities that may be disruptive in residential settings, such as when social organizations hold music concerts or wrestling events as fundraisers.
“A church generally meets on Wednesday nights and on Sundays. It’s not a lot of heavy use,” said David Marttala. “A community center could be heavy use with activities going on there at all hours.”
Federal law surpasses city regulations. Once “church” is replaced with “place of public assembly, indoor,” a community center or social organization can relocate into a building formerly used as a church.
“We can’t do anything about the past,” said Jerry Williamson, in reference to the city allowing churches to be constructed in residential areas. “Could we not eliminate from here forward? That you couldn’t build them in residential? That would solve it for the future.”
Baird replied, “Yes, you can.”
“So, the church that we talked about on West End Avenue, it could become one of these places,” said Rachel Kirby.
“That’s correct,” said Baird, who also suggested zoning codes for R-3 and R-4 districts be changed because they, too, allow construction of churches. “We could tailor this to existing buildings only.”
Churches would remain permitted uses in all commercial district zones. No mention was made of removing churches from R-5, a residential-commercial mix zone that allows churches by special exception only.
The measure was deferred, allowing Baird time to make those revised changes to McMinnville Zoning Code and present a copy for McMinnville Regional Planning Commission consideration.