Asheville City Council

Asheville City Council members might want to have one hand on the U.S. Constitition and the other on the Bible when they start playing around with the city’s definition of “church.”

The definition in the city’s Unified Development Ordinance limits churches to one sanctuary and one additional building — explicitly excluding daycare, educational and recreational facilities. Some see that as violating the separation of church and state.

“The city fathers should stay out of the definition of church … and we should be given the liberty to operate our churches as we have for the past 200 years,” declared the Rev. Wendell Runion, citing the First Amendment during Council’s Sept. 22 public hearing on proposed changes to the UDO.

That sentiment had the support of several Council members. O.T. Tomes — a Baptist pastor — urged Council to reconsider how it defines churches, whose modern-day missions encompass a wide range of services. And Earl Cobb remarked, “We need some understanding about churches. … We don’t need to be infringing on [their] rights.”

One month earlier, a split vote by Council members defeated Trinity Baptist’s request that its property be rezoned from a residential to an institutional classification, in connection with the church’s long-range plans for a $16 million expansion. Residents of the surrounding neighborhood, however, objected to institutional zoning for the 23-acre property, citing concerns about increased traffic from the expansion and the possibility that other, more intense uses would be allowed, should the church ever sell the land.

Some of those same residents spoke out on Sept. 22, too. “We must have laws and abide by them,” said Lou McCarthy, who lives across the street from Trinity. She called church leaders “spoiled children” trying to get their way at the expense of others.

Trinity has threatened the city with a lawsuit if its concerns aren’t addressed quickly.

“If the church doesn’t obey the laws, why should anybody else?” added McCarthy’s neighbor Ann Anderson. Government can’t tell the church how to conduct its mission, she argued, but can limit the size, traffic, parking and other zoning issues — “just like [it does] with any other business.”

But if church property at Trinity were used for single-family development, the land could legally support six homes per acre, observed Parkway Baptist Pastor Randy Young, adding, “Why can’t [a church] build more church facilities?”

Trying to reason the issue out, Tomes commented, “Our hang-up is in seeing the church as a secular business. It isn’t. It’s a spritual thing.”

Trinity Associate Pastor Jerry Young agreed, noting, “If churches are limited to one building and one sanctuary, that limits [their] growth.” He said Trinity would rather “work with the city” than undertake “long litigation.” He urged Council members to immediately adopt one of three definitions proposed by Trinity’s lawyer, David Payne.

Before Council members responded to that request, Barber Melton of the Coalition of Asheville Neighborhoods remarked, “The church seems to be concerned with limits on … growth. But their growth is an infringement on my neighborhood. … A church is a business, any way you look at it.”

Hearing such outcries about the church issue — and few comments on other proposed UDO changes — City Planner Gerald Green promised to make it his top priority, although he stands by the UDO’s current definition of churches. Green announced the creation of a committee — headed by Council member Cobb and consisting of at least three church leaders and three neighborhood advocates — that will address the possible redefinition of “church,” as well as a proposal to allow some church expansions as a conditional use in residential districts.

But the committee process might take awhile: Any recommendations made by participants must first be reviewed by the city’s Planning and Zoning Commission — in late October or early November at the earliest — before coming back to Council for a vote before Christmas.

That extended time line spurred a 40-minute discussion among Council members later in the Sept. 22 meeting: How could they speed things up? Tommy Sellers pointed out that Council had promised Trinity results within 30 days of the Trinity zoning vote, taken on Aug. 28. Sellers also asked that city staff separate the definition issue from the conditional-use proposal.

After a much-tangled discussion, Council members voted 5-2 to direct City Attorney Bob Oast to report back to them ASAP on the fastest way to move forward with a redefinition. Council member Chuck Cloninger and Vice Mayor Ed Hay voted against the motion, made by Barbara Field and seconded by Sellers. Hay and Cloninger remarked that the committee process would ultimately work just as fast as any other method of review. Cloninger stressed that he thinks the definition and conditional-use issues should not be separated.

Oast noted that he had had little time to review Payne’s recommended definitions, some of which appeared to come from North Carolina tax laws, not zoning regulations. “I want to do my own research on this issue,” he observed.

And Cobb remarked: “It’s a sad day when you come to a discussion [like this one] between neighborhoods and churches. … I hope [this can be] resolved so that we protect everyone’s rights.”

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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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