Asheville City Council

Sometimes one man’s blessing proves to be another’s curse: On April 13, by a narrow 4-3 vote, Asheville City Council members approved a hotly contested expansion project at Trinity Baptist Church in West Asheville.

The very next day, Council member Barbara Field received numerous blessings — by fax — from church members who said they appreciated her vote for approval. But Field and the other Council members who supported Trinity’s expansion seem unlikely to receive any blessings from the neighborhood residents who have battled the project for more than a year.

“This is a no-win situation. I’ve had threats [that] I’m going to lose votes — from both sides. But I can’t let that affect my vote,” Council member Earl Cobb remarked at the end of the three-hour public hearing that preceded the vote. Emphasizing his strong support for neighborhoods, Cobb nevertheless chose to support Trinity’s plans to build a 2,400-seat sanctuary, add hundreds more parking spaces, and site a ballfield on its 23-acre Shelbourne Road property. So did Tommy Sellers (who made the motion to approve) and O.T. Tomes (who seconded it).

“It’s an us-or-them, win-or-lose situation,” said Sellers, noting that his decision was particularly difficult because he used to live in the neighborhood that has led the struggle against Trinity’s plans.

Even those Council members who voted against Sellers’ motion to approve — Vice Mayor Ed Hay, Mayor Leni Sitnick and Chuck Cloninger — saw a two-edged sword facing them as they cast votes. Remarked Hay, “We keep being told there’ll be litigation for this, either way.”

A few days before the hearing, Trinity filed suit against both the city and the Carrier Heights Neighborhood Association (which has been leading residents’ fight against the project and has hired an attorney). Although the city is in the process of redefining “church” in the Unified Development Ordinance, Trinity alleges that the ordinance’s present definition of the word is too restrictive — and probably unconstitutional — because it omits such common components of modern-day ministries as daycare, school and recreational facilities. And even though Council members swore that the pending lawsuit had no bearing on their votes, it hung in the air, part of the tension evident throughout the session.

Into the lion’s den

When Mayor Sitnick arrived at the Asheville Civic Center banquet room, she walked down the aisle with Vice Mayor Hay, taking a deep breath and telling him, “OK, here we go.”

Expecting a large crowd, Sitnick had relocated the hearing from Council chambers to the City Hall banquet room. But fewer than 50 people showed; they seemed dwarfed by the spacious facility, Trinity supporters on one side, neighborhood residents on the other.

On the surface, all seemed congenial, but as Trinity Pastor Ralph Sexton worked the room, shaking hands and introducing himself to unfamiliar faces, a Carrier Heights woman muttered, “These preachers get to me!”

When the hearing began, Sitnick cautioned both sides that the topic of the day was the size of Trinity’s latest expansion project and nothing else (an interim expansion project increasing the number of parking spaces and adding a 1,500-seat sanctuary/auditorium, previously approved by staff, is under construction).

Next, she and fellow Council members quizzed City Planner Carl Owenby on project specifics. Hay asked how tall the new sanctuary would be (50 feet — 5 feet higher than the existing 700-seat sanctuary). Field asked about traffic studies and the resulting staff recommendations (city staff have suggested that Council require Trinity to fund the widening of Sand Hill Road to three lanes, to accommodate increased traffic at a side entrance to the site); she also asked about the size of homes in the surrounding neighborhood (many are bungalows about 800-1,000 square feet; other homes range from 1,000 to 1,500, Owenby replied).

Owenby also mentioned that the church must satisfy a series of conditions, should the project be approved: It must provide additional landscaping along a property line that was improperly graded for construction; it must pay $900 in outstanding fines related to the overall project; it must remove references to daycare facilities from its site plan (because daycare isn’t a permitted use for churches); it must add a sidewalk to the Trinity side of Shelbourne Road; and it must shield and lower the parking-lot lights, to reduce their impact on the surrounding neighborhood.

When Owenby remarked that Trinity has rectified the light problem, Carrier Heights residents called out, “No, they haven’t!”

Despite the mutterings, Sitinick kept an amicable tone, informing both sides that speakers representing a group would have 10 minutes, individuals just three minutes. She explained that Council would use what Tomes jokingly called an “archaic” timekeeping method: City Clerk Maggie Burleson would hold up a yellow sheet of paper to warn speakers they had 15 seconds left. Like Wheel of Fortune’s Vanna White, Burleson demonstrated the system, raising a yellow sheet over her head and eliciting laughter from the crowd.

Then the arguments began.

A bigger, better temple

Heeding Sitnick’s instructions, both sides focused on the project’s size.

Trinity architect John Cort declared that the church had met all the conditions required for its project, and had therefore earned Council’s approval. “My client is trying to build a church and a school, [and] this is an appropriate scale,” he asserted.

Historically, the property has been used for institutional purposes, Cort argued, noting that a brand-new school facility (as opposed to an expansion) would need to be twice as large and would generate more traffic. Trinity, he continued, has addressed traffic and public-safety concerns; the site has adequate water, sewer and other infrastructure needed to support the expansion; and three previous Councils have approved a site plan nearly identical to the one Council members had before them that night. “It’s about ministering to people,” Cort added — a refrain that Trinity supporters would echo repeatedly.

The expansion will help Trinity continue its ministry to young people and increase its Bible school enrollment from 30 to 100, so it can train up to 100 pastors, teachers and missionaries at a time, Cort reported. He suggested that Trinity has grown so remarkably in past years because God has been pleased to bless the church. And, from a strictly legal standpoint, Cort urged, “Remember: The size and scale [of this project] is appropriate.”

Not so, countered Carrier Heights attorney Frank Goldsmith. “This doesn’t fit,” he exclaimed, calling Trinity’s proposal an “enormous campus” and a “mega-church” that shouldn’t be permitted in a residential area. “You have to deny it,” Goldsmith argued. The UDO, he suggested, permits large-scale residential developments only as conditional uses in residential neighborhoods, and Trinity’s plan for a Bible school and K-12 school, plus recreational facilities, doesn’t fit that bill.

Goldsmith also questioned the timing of Trinity’s lawsuit over the UDO’s definition of “church,” labeling it a “bully tactic to try to coerce [Council].” Said Goldsmith, “This is just the latest step in an attempt by Trinity to impose its will on the neighborhood. … Instead of loving their neighbor, they’re suing their neighbor.”

Sitnick interjected that the public hearing was about the size of the proposed project, not the pending lawsuit against the city and Carrier Heights.

Goldsmith agreed.

Tomes — giving a hint of how he’d be voting — said to Goldsmith, “I hear an intention being put forth on the part of the [Trinity] congregation to be a good neighbor,” and mentioned how the church appears to be complying with neighborhood requests that the parking-lot lights be subdued.

But unsatisfied residents continued to press the issue of size: Carrier Heights Association Chairman Tom Lewis reminded Council members that the typical home in the neighborhood is less than 2,000 square feet. Council members must consider whether a development “will be in harmony with the scale, bulk, coverage, density and character of the area or neighborhood in which it’s located,” he put forth, reading from a city staff report. The Trinity campus does not meet those criteria, asserted Lewis.

Other residents pushed that point, too, adding concerns about increased traffic and the general health or welfare of the community. Said Shelbourne Road resident Lu McCarthy, whose home is across the street from Trinity, “Where is the legal justification — out of 200 churches in [Asheville] — to allow one mega-church on a two-lane road? We neighbors don’t hate [Trinity members and] aren’t atheists. … We’re just against mega-churches.” Trinity’s “convention center” project, she claimed, “will disrupt the quality of life in Carrier Heights. … It doesn’t belong in a residential neighborhood.”

Resident Ann Anderson argued that adding a turning lane for Trinity on Sand Hill Road won’t be enough to ease traffic congestion on narrow neighborhood roads that already constitute a traffic hazard.

And Carrier Street resident June Lamb said she believes in the First Amendment, which protects freedom of religion, but is convinced Trinity should relocate if it wants to expand, and turn the current property into a public park.

As she exceeded her three-minute time limit, someone on the Trinity side muttered, “Shut up!” [In the past year, Lamb has been one of the most vocal opponents of Trinity’s expansion plans].

And when Sitnick asked how close Carrier Street is to the church, the same man called out that it’s about a mile — to which a Carrier Heights man retorted, “It is not! It’s about a block!” A resident seated behind him urged, “Let’s not get into a fight.” Lewis noted that Carrier is one street over from Sand Hill Road, which intersects Shelbourne at the church property.

McCarthy’s husband, Robert, interjected, “Cities have the right to regulate churches. Y’all just have to have the courage to do it.” Calling for Trinity to obey the UDO, he read from The Gospel of St. Mark (12:17): “Render unto Caesar what is Caesar’s.”

At that, Council members took a 15-minute break, momentarily defusing the situation.

Try a little tenderness

Shortly after Sitnick banged the gavel to continue the hearing, she called for a show of patience. “Some people have gone over [their] time limit, [but] I don’t need people coughing … and calling ‘time!'” she said, urging people to give speakers on both sides a little leeway, given the lack of a highly accurate timekeeping system (Council chambers has a gadget that displays green, yellow or red lights, depending on how much time a speaker has left).

Jimmy Dykes, chairman of the Community Council on Biblical Values and the pastor of a local church, said he had attended a Council meeting last fall at which Council members had directed staff to move quickly on studying the church-definition issue. “We’re eight months later. … Trinity Baptist Church doesn’t need to be penalized while [the city] changes a bad law,” he asserted, urging Council to let Trinity expand as much as its property allows.

Other speakers cited Trinity’s good deeds — such as helping two former drug lords find religion and providing disaster relief for stricken communities. “Its members are the salt of the earth,” declared Values Council member Carol Collins, adding, “People don’t understand what good neighbors [churches] are.”

But Sitnick tried to steer the discussion back to the issue at hand, saying, “The decision today must be based on size.”

“I’ve heard a lot of negative things [about Trinity],” said church member Brenda Crisp. Holding back tears, she commented, “This is [about] more than material things: Material things are going to pass away. … We’re trying to give our children something for the future.”

Trinity Pastor Sexton conceded, “We know we’ve had problems in the past.” Citing neighbors’ complaints about noisy tractor-trailers that had sat on site at all hours, in connection with the church’s disaster-relief efforts, he noted that the relief program was moved elsewhere. And, addressing concerns about trees lost when Trinity graded the site for the proposed parking lots and ballfield, he said, “No one’s more sick about losing trees than me,” professing membership in such environmental organizations as RiverLink, and adding that Trinity plans to turn its Hominy Creek property (located down the hill from the sanctuary) into a park.

Sexton also argued that Trinity isn’t a “mega-church” — a term, he said, commonly used to refer to churches whose sanctuaries seat more than 5,000 people. As for McCarthy’s Caesar reference, Sexton declared, “I do not believe in rendering unto Caesar things that are God’s — and that’s where I have a problem with the UDO.”

As for neighborhood fears that the expansion would further reduce declining property values, he blamed West Asheville’s problems on failing infrastructure and the shift to a minority, ethnic population.

Two children spoke next — brother and sister Melanie and Wesley McCoy. “I think we should go ahead with this,” said Melanie, adding that she wished Trinity had a Christian school she could attend, and praising the church’s ministry to kids.

Soon after, architect Cort summed up Trinity’s arguments and, responding to Goldsmith’s charge, queried, “It’s a long process, and [that makes us] bullies?” Trinity, he said, was simply following the process set out in the UDO. Reiterating that the project is in scale with the area, he concluded, “It is the right of the property owner to put a church in there, or a school.”

After a brief discussion among Council members, Sellers — who had said nothing during the hearing — made a motion to approve Trinity’s expansion, provided the church meets the conditions set by city staff. Tomes seconded the motion.

Field asked for clarification about the traffic counts for Shelbourne and Sand Hill roads (about 10,000 vehicles per day) and asked staff whether increased traffic due to the expansion would reduce the level of service on those roads (no, responded City Engineer Cathy Ball). But Field was more concerned with the lack of independently researched information about property values. “How can we make a decision if we don’t have the information? …. Something this size could have an effect on property values in the neighborhood.”

But Cloninger urged a vote, saying Council had enough information to pass judgment.

Hay cautioned Field that Council couldn’t approve the project unless a majority of members agreed that all seven conditional-use standards — addressing the scale, public-safety impact, infrastructure and other issues addressed during the meeting — have been met.

During this discussion, Tomes — himself a Baptist pastor — bowed his head as if in prayer, and, when it was his turn to comment, said, “I’ve tried not to let my God-calling emotion … get in the way.” His decision, he remarked, was based on his conviction that churches are being called upon to do more and more in the community, “to treat the whole person,” and so should be allowed to expand.

“[Trinity] has met everything we’ve said they need to … by the technical standards,” added Cobb.

But Hay said he had to vote against the project, because it’s not in harmony with the surrounding neighborhood’s scale and character. “In my opinion, it’s too big.”

Cloninger agreed, adding that he wasn’t convinced the project wouldn’t adversely affect public safety and traffic congestion in the neighborhood.

As the bells of St. Lawrence’s Basilica tolled 9 p.m., Sitnick said it looked as though a 4-3 vote favoring Trinity was coming, because she, too, opposed Seller’s motion. When the church tried (and failed) to get its property rezoned Institutional last year, noted Sitnick, “I denied [that request] because it would have allowed all the things being sought as conditional use today.” She agreed with Hay and Cloninger that the project is too big and might hurt property values. “I would not want to buy a house across from a ballfield, simply because of the noise, but that’s an opinion.”

But, since the project seemed about to win approval, she urged Trinity to meet the conditions set by staff and Council, especially addressing the lighting issue, providing landscape buffering and, perhaps, allowing the whole community to use the ballpark.

She then called for a vote — which went as predicted.

City Attorney Bob Oast reported that the split vote requires Council to take a second vote at a subsequent meeting. Hay responded that he would be out of town during Council’s next formal session, on April 28.

Sitnick asked if Hay could vote by phone, but Sellers mentioned, “He’s going to Rome on his honeymoon — he’s not going to call us!”

Sexton said that delaying the second vote by a few weeks to accommodate Hay was fine with him, noting, “I’ll be in Jerusalem while you’re in Rome.”

Council directed staff to schedule the second vote for May 11.

About Margaret Williams
Editor Margaret Williams first wrote for Xpress in 1994. An Alabama native, she has lived in Western North Carolina since 1987 and completed her Masters of Liberal Arts & Sciences from UNC-Asheville in 2016. Follow me @mvwilliams

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