County postpones decision on Rock expansion

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By The Staff

Authorities postponed a decision on the proposed rezoning and addition to The Rock of Southwest Baptist Church until April 15 to allow more time for the public hearing.

About 100 people, mostly from the Westridge and Reflections neighborhoods in South Jefferson County, jammed the hearing room to appeal to the county commissioners at 9 a.m. April 8.

Some 17 attendees testified against the proposed church expansion at 10393 W. Alamo Place before discussion was cut off at 11:30 for scheduling reasons.

The hearing followed last week’s hearing in front of the planning commission, which concluded with a unanimous vote of six planning commissioners in favor of the church’s request to construct a new building.

Church officials returned to the county commissioners with their original request and not the somewhat smaller project the planning commission approved.

At Tuesday’s hearing, about an hour’s worth of testimony, at least, was set aside for the next meeting of the county commissioners.

Most of the complaints focused on traffic and problems associated with the increase in church attendance from an average of about 400 on Sundays in 2002 to 800 today.

Denial recommended

The Jefferson County planning department recommended denial of the church’s application for a 16,000-square-foot standalone building, saying the existing church already is too large for the setting in a residential neighborhood.

“The staff believes the church is at or beyond the maximum square footage allowed,” said planner Alan Tiefenbach, who gave a presentation showing there are no other churches in a residential neighborhood “at a scale even close to the church’s present size.”

Surrounded by houses between 1,100 and 2,200 square feet, a 43,000-square-foot church (in two buildings) would dwarf the surrounding community, says Tiefenbach’s report. Numerous churches in South Jeffco are bigger than The Rock, but none of them is on such a large lot and has such a large footprint in an established neighborhood off a main street.

Church administrator Tim Price said the church needs a new building to provide more space for a youth center and its current activities. He said there are no plans to add new programs.

He urged the commissioners to approve the plan on grounds the proposal is 15,000 square feet less than the zoning would allow and also meets all of the other design guidelines.

“Our position is, a lack of approval constitutes undue and substantial burden on the church,” Price said.

Vince Harris of Baseline Planning said that under the current official development plan, the church is entitled to a 63,000-square-foot building, which could be accomplished by scraping off the existing structure and building a larger, two-story building in its place.

Commissioner Kevin McCasky asked the applicants whether they would be willing to expand the church regardless of the board’s decision.

“We really have a need to expand vertically. We could add a second story to the lap pool and and administrative area. We would build vertically if we can’t go horizontally,” Harris said.

Tiefenbach said the church is entitled to a 63,000-square-foot building as long as it is no more than 30 feet high with a footprint of 21,000 square feet.

“They have a vested right?” McCasky asked.

“As long as they do it within the footprint,” Tiefenbach said.

Dueling property rights

“People seem very concerned about The Rock’s property rights,” said Westridge Homeowners Association spokesman Eric Struble. “What about our rights?”

He said when the church bought into the neighborhood, it claimed to be uninterested in expansion. “We understood the church was content” with the existing floor space, Struble said.

“The neighborhood feels like The Rock has taken advantage of us,” Struble said. “The Rock is a regional church, not a community church.”

“The issue is scale of use. The Rock overuse is detrimentally affecting (our) lives already. Any increase will aggravate the problems,” Struble said.

Struble said he feared the new multipurpose center would be used as an events center for such things as weddings, funerals and craft shows, which the neighborhood doesn’t want.

“It was a mistake six years ago to approve such a large building,” he said.

Several residents complained about the Sunday traffic generated by the church and that it makes it impossible at times to get out of their houses. They said Alamo Place is not designed to be a collector street as it is lined with driveways and houses.

Ann Eldridge, spokesperson for the Reflections HOA, said what attracted her to the neighborhood was the “quiet, park-like setting.” But over the years, she said, her street has become a dangerous road. “I never thought I’d be pleading with you. In my naiveness, I thought everything would stay the same. It’s just not right for our neighborhood,” she said.

Realtor Julie Griffth cited the negative effect of higher traffic on property values, especially in an area that was already struggling somewhat to realize appreciation in recent years.

Bette Peterson, who has lived in Westridge since 1979, said the church would be twice as large as any comparable church. “Can the county afford to reduce our property values?” she said.

Another Reflections neighbor, Gary Philpott, condemned the church’s attitude. “The arrogance of threatening the community with an RLUIPA action (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000) ee I have to say shame on them. You can put a tutu on an elephant, but it’s not a ballerina.They will fill up the space and then ask to expand more.”

Wendell Bash, a member of the church and a resident of Westridge, said the community’s real concern is that the church has a much larger scope than the subdivision of Westridge. “Their intent is to have us leave the community .”

Another church member, Jim Knudsen, said the church had no intention of becoming a mega-church. Next year 150 members of the church will split off and start their own church. “We are a church of church planters,” he said.

Knudsen said 442 members of the church had signed a petition asking the county commissioners to approve the expansion plan.