TRI in the News

Church Wants Worship Space

August 18, 2008

Original article available here.

A religious group called Hope Aglow Empowerment Center leveled charges this week that Spotsylvania County's industrial zoning ordinance violates federal law by imposing unfair restrictions on where a church can locate.

County attorneys and zoning officials are attempting to make the ordinance clearer, but their recommendation is not making members of the religious group any happier.

Hope Aglow, a multicultural, nondenominational nonprofit organization with about 140 members, has met at Marquee Cinemas since February 2007. Members want to locate in a new office building on Latimers Knoll Court in the Lansdowne Business Park, a largely undeveloped industrial site south of the CVS warehouse and across the street from the Lansdowne subdivision, where homes sell between $400,000 and $500,000.

But according to Zoning Administrator Troy Tignor, the county's industrial zoning ordinance omits churches, but allows things like Elk Clubs, restaurants and indoor hockey rinks.

County Attorney Jacob Stroman said the county can rectify the situation by requiring that all five uses that involve public gatherings be allowed with approval of a special-use permit.

But the center would rather avoid the special-use permit process that can cost as much as $6,600 and take almost a year to finish. Supporters say the county can add churches as an allowed use. They have hinted at taking legal action.

"It is not just us being affected by this," said James Massey, a member of Motisi Holdings LLC, which owns the office building. "It is going to impose additional restrictions to potential tenants and owners and limit future development as well. A special-use permit can be denied. What they are [proposing is] taking away the rights of potential owners in the industrial zone."

Hope Aglow hired attorney Ron Maupin, who in May informed Tignor that Congress passed a law in 2000 called "Protection of Religious Exercise in Land Use and by Institutional Persons," which does not allow a locality to unfairly zone out a place of worship.

Officials from the Rutherford Institute, a defender of religious and human rights, wrote in a May 14 letter to Maupin that if something like an Elks Club is allowed in an industrial zone, then the county cannot keep a church from locating there.

In July, supervisors met in closed session to obtain legal advice on the issue.

On Tuesday, about 60 Hope Aglow supporters attended the supervisors meeting to urge board members to allow the church as a by-right use.

In a later interview, Stroman said there are situations when a use involving public gatherings does not fit in an industrial zone. By applying for a special-use permit, supervisors have the power to deny the project for various reasons, including safety. Stroman said the ordinance would be fairly applied if all uses involving public gatherings are required to file for a special-use permit. He denied charges that the county's current ordinance is in violation of federal law.

Hope Aglow Pastor Levonzia Stevens said if supervisors approve the recommendation, it places an unnecessary burden on more than just churches.

"The only thing they needed to do was add in places of worship," he said. "What they have done is taken the difficult route."

Supervisors passed the zoning amendment proposal to the Planning Commission for discussion. Any change would require public hearings.