Asheville City Council

What constitutes a modern-day church — and do its members have an inherent right to expand its facilities?

This was the thorny issue Asheville City Council members faced on Aug. 25, in a marathon three-hour public hearing embedded in Council’s regular formal session. At times, the hearing took on hints of a holy war: Trinity Baptist Church members have been seeking to have their 20-acre property rezoned from Residential to Institutional, so they can add new facilities, such as a ballfield, a 2,400-seat sanctuary and, tentatively, a Bible school.

But churches aren’t allowed educational or recreational facilities, according to the definition in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance.

Pastor Ralph Sexton told Council he had become so frustrated with UDO restrictions that, when city staff originally nixed the ballfield on the church’s proposed site plan, “I [decided to] call it a ‘praying field.'”

And Trinity Associate Pastor Jerry Young asked rhetorically, “Who has given the UDO the authority to define what a church can do?” Modern-day churches “minister to all needs” in the community, and they need more than a sanctuary, office and some parking spaces, he argued.

Not disagreeing with Young, Council members said they found themselves between a rock and a hard place: “I come from a family of church-builders,” said Vice Mayor Ed Hay, whose father, grandfather and great-grandfather were all Presbyterian ministers, along with two of his brothers. “I understand about mission and calling. But we have a law,” he said.

That law requires Council members to consider not what Trinity plans to do on its property — or the benefits of its Christian ministry — but, rather, the implications of rezoning an area Institutional, including any effects on the surrounding area that remains Residential. As Council member Chuck Cloninger and Mayor Leni Sitnick pointed out, Institutional zoning would allow a number of potentially high-traffic, high-density uses, such as a hospital, fitness facility, convention center, medical clinic or college.

Council members were in for a long night: More than 100 people attended the Trinity hearing, with dozens of them crowding outside in the hall, having to rely on Council’s sound system hear the proceedings. The hearing was punctuated by applause, grumbles and cries of “Amen!” — and rendered almost bizarre by the contrasting presence of marijuana advocates, some barefooted and toting signs. At one point, some were ushered outside the building, when the hallway got too full.

What would Solomon do?

Before the Aug. 25 meeting even began, Sitnick told the assembled crowd that she had met with Council member Earl Cobb — who is usually a staunch advocate for neighborhoods — and that they had come up with a proposal for “a more consensus-oriented solution”: Set up a conditional-use permitting process that would allow Trinity and other residential-area churches to expand, without allowing other institutional uses, should the church ever vacate the property.

Sitnick’s offer was like a white flag waved before two opposing armies — who weren’t completely sure they were quite ready to stop fighting. At the start of the hearing, she suggested that Trinity withdraw its rezoning request and give staff time to draft a conditional-use policy for the UDO. “What we’re trying to do here is create some leadership,” said Sitnick, noting that, so far, neighborhood residents and church representatives had been unable to reach a compromise.

She also noted that Cobb, on vacation at the North Carolina coast, had planned to participate in the meeting by phone. But Hurricane Bonnie evacuations had rendered that impossible. Under the circumstances, she reported, Cobb had asked Sitnick to postpone the public hearing until Sept. 22.

That would have been the third delay: Council had initially scheduled a public hearing last Jan. 27, but canceled it when a snowstorm hit; and on July 28, Trinity attorney David Payne had requested postponement, in part because Council member O.T. Tomes — a Baptist minister — couldn’t attend.

The absence of even one Council member was of special significance, because neighborhood advocates had filed a protest petition. In such circumstances, North Carolina statutes require more than a simple majority for a decision to rezone: In Council’s case, that meant six votes, City Attorney Bob Oast has explained on several occasions. With Cobb absent, rezoning would require a unanimous decision.

But Trinity representatives didn’t object to Cobb’s absence: Payne asked Council to proceed. “We’ve been waiting a long time,” he said. As for Sitnick’s conditional-use proposal, Payne hesitated to support it, because Council couldn’t promise to implement it by a definite date.

And attorney Frank Goldsmith, representing residents who live near Trinity, remarked that his clients, too, had been waiting a long time. “We would like to see this … resolved tonight,” he said, adding “although we understand the act of God that [has] kept Council member Cobb from participating.”

Hay moved for postponement, and Council member Barbara Field seconded. But the motion failed on a split vote: Sitnick, Field and Hay voted in favor, and Sellers, Tomes and Cloninger opposed it.

The hearing was on — after Council members had already spent at least an hour discussing Cobb’s absence, the conditional-use idea, and possible postponement.

We’re on a mission from God

No one disputed Trinity’s mission of Christian ministry, but that didn’t stop rezoning supporters from a bit of heartfelt preaching — with a nod toward the Constitution.

“We have some serious constitutional problems here,” said Payne, arguing that church members had not been fully notified of last year’s zoning changes. Before the UDO, which was passed in May 1997, Trinity’s property was zoned R-3 and R-2 — both residential classifications that would have allowed the church’s proposed expansion, he said. And long before that, the property was always institutional “in nature,” Payne claimed, noting that the property had been used as a sanatorium, a dairy and a rock quarry. “Without the Institutional zoning, Trinity Baptist will be severely limited in growth,” he added.

Goldsmith countered that the issue is not about hostility to religion or Trinity’s right to conduct its mission. “It’s about future use, other institutional uses,” he argued. Allowing Trinity to switch zoning classifications would set a precedent for other churches to follow, Goldsmith speculated. “And it’s not a case of what used to be there; we’re talking about changing what is there for all time.”

He urged Council to deny the rezoning and rewrite the UDO’s definition of a church, calling that action “a better way to address their needs than Institutional zoning.”

More than a dozen Trinity supporters spoke after Goldsmith, arguing that the church’s missions might come to an end if the property weren’t rezoned. “This is a First Amendment issue — the right of a church to be a church,” proclaimed Pastor Ralph Sexton. He charged that city staff had harassed the church, questioning it about the facility’s current uses and threatening to padlock its doors.

City staff refuted that claim, saying they were looking into complaints from neighbors that the church isn’t complying with existing zoning laws.

Another speaker urged Council to rezone Trinity so the church “can continue its mission as the Lord sees fit,” calling the issue “a defense of religious freedom.”

But Shelbourne Road resident Ann Anderson, tired of being perceived as anti-Christian, countered that the residents opposed to the rezoning are churchgoing people, just like Trinity members. “We just don’t want a Thomas Wolfe-sized auditorium in our neighborhood.”

Trinity Youth Pastor Tim Brady called the UDO a “cage” that is keeping the church from fulfilling its mission “to reach out into the community and save lives.”

“I appreciate all the sermons we got tonight,” said Shelbourne resident Norman Anderson. “But the issue is: Will Institutional zoning be appropriate to the neighborhood in the future?

After a few more speakers had their turn, Sellers made a motion to grant Trinity’s request; Tomes seconded. “Churches must be understood … as seven-day-a-week ministries,” declared Tomes.

His remarks earned applause and several shouts of “Amen!”

Cloninger remarked that he respects the church’s mission, but added, “I can’t vote [to rezone], because we have to consider all the potential uses … not just what the church wants to do.” He added that he looks forward to working on the conditional-use proposal, which he said could be drafted by city staff within one month.

Field said she’d “rather have a better definition of churches” in the UDO, but would vote for the rezoning because she supports mixed-use planning.

Trinity’s mission is good for the city, Hay allowed, but he added that he would have to oppose rezoning, because of the potential uses allowed in Institutional districts.

In response to that, a man in the audience said quietly, “May the Lord have mercy on him.”

Sellers’ motion failed to muster the required six votes: Sitnick, Cloninger and Hay voted against it.

“Thank you for your superhuman patience and your efforts,” said Sexton, shaking hands with Council members, as the crowd dispersed shortly afterward.

Church officials said after the meeting that they would consider filing a lawsuit against the city, but wouldn’t take any legal action prior to seeing the outcome of the conditional-use proposal.

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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