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Decision on Rock rezoning will have to wait

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By Matt Gunn

After about four hours of discussion and testimony, the lights shut off in Hearing Room 1 at the Jefferson County Administration and Courts Facility.

It seemed almost appropriate that, after more than a year of community meetings and adjustments to an expansion plan for The Rock of Southwest Baptist Church, the Planning Commission hearing required a continuance. The hearing will continue at 1:45 p.m. Jan. 23.

“Probably testimony is closed now,” said Alan Tiefenbach, the Jefferson County planner assigned The Rock’s case. “So at this point what will happen most likely is they’ll reconvene and they will ask The Rock if they’d like to comment.”

That could be followed by additional staff comments, then commissioner discussion and a decision. Last Wednesday’s meeting ended at approximately 10 p.m.

Tiefenbach opened the hearing with the planning staff report. He discussed the site’s history, along with developments during the rezoning process, ultimately recommending the commissioners deny The Rock’s request.

“It is not residential in character, and will not be of a scale and design compatible with the residential neighborhood,” Tiefenbach said.

Simply put, The Rock, under its proposed official development plan, would become too large for the small, established neighborhood of Westridge.

“The Rock of the Southwest as proposed would have a footprint that puts it in the five largest churches (in South Jefferson County),” Tiefenbach said.

However, all the large churches in the community are on main arterials, such as West Bowles Avenue. Tiefenbach described the next largest church in a neighborhood, Messiah Lutheran Bretheren Church at 7870 S. Garrison St., as being one-tenth the size of The Rock.

Members of The Rock made their case before the board, repeating that their intent is to spread horizontally across the property, using low rooflines in construction of a one-story youth center with a walkout basement. They said the plan limited the church to fewer square feet than is currently allowed, and that care was taken in visual aesthetics of the parking lot.

“We’re really trying to get a lot more use out of our land,” said Keith Thompson of Intergroup Architects, whom the church contracted to design its proposed site. “We’re trying to be more sustainable with our approaches to new urbanism. We’re trying to make value with what we have.”

Thompson’s presentation attempted to establish The Rock as a very small church in comparison to mega-churches such as Lakewood Church in Houston, a converted professional basketball arena. He used charts showing that The Rock was also small in terms of land use under its current footprint.

“I look at this site as being a very small site,” Thompson said. “I would consider it a very small church, not even a medium-size church, and I see it fitting very well in a residential neighborhood.”

The Rock’s presentation addressed its stated desire to reduce from three services to two on Sundays, and restated that the youth center is not intended as an event center. Better landscaping and terraced parking are intended to take strain off neighbors’ eyes. There was also the promise that the church does not intend to grow its flock.

“It is our goal not to grow with this additional space,” said Tim Price, a church staff member. “It’s just to really service our current congregation. And while it is our goal to try and reach new people for Jesus Christ, we prefer to send groups off as church plants.”

Tiefenbach said The Rock’s argument may have missed the mark.

“To be honest, I wasn’t impressed with their argument,” Tiefenbach said. “They were making a lot of comparisons to the lot coverage of these churches and what they seat. From what I remember, there was no reference to why it should be appropriate in a residential neighborhood. That’s the argument we had, and there was no reference to that.”

The homeowner associations were organized with their allotted time before the board. Westridge homeowner Eric Struble made the main argument, followed by eight individuals representing the neighborhood and the Council of Homeowner Organizations for a Planned Environment.

Struble noted the architect’s comparison between The Rock and larger churches.

“It’s a very large church,” Struble said in reference to The Rock. “The fact that they’ve built larger ones does not make this a small church.”

Other Westridge residents cited traffic, pollution and a concern for decreased property values. The community members were careful to say they support The Rock’s mission but oppose the potential impacts of a larger facility.

“If this plan is approved in the face of county restrictions and the strong, justified opposition of the neighborhood and the surrounding area, it will put all subdivisions in the county in danger because the precedent has been set,” said Winnie Burden, speaking on behalf of COHOPE.

Others spoke up during individual testimony. Though many seemed opposed to The Rock’s proposed ODP, there was a reasonable contingent in support of it. Each side was passionate in explaining its position to the board.

Janet Fecht, a Westridge resident who supports the church, pointed out that participation in the Westridge homeowner association is voluntary and its membership does not encompass or speak for the entire community.

“There are so many people who are not here because it’s not a big deal to them,” Fecht said. “They’re happy to have a church built.”

The hearing room was full through the first half of the meeting. Tiefenbach said the numbers were lower than he expected based on the amount of feedback he’d received over the past 13 months. He could not tell which way the board was leaning on the issue.

“It’s political now,” Tiefenbach said. “More times than not they side with us on most of the things.”

The board will make its decision Jan. 23.

The continuance comes hours after The Rock’s appeal before the Board of Adjustment. That hearing will determine whether the county’s stance on the land’s current zoning will remain.

A parcel of land The Rock purchased from Jeffco Public Schools in 2001 was once zoned Denver R-1. The church contests that, even though that land was de-annexed from Denver, the zoning is still relevant.

“If the board of appeals rules against them and sustains the zoning administrators’ decision, then they’re in the same position they are now,” Tiefenbach said.

He indicated that, regardless the outcome, the issue could be far from over.

“Now I’m basically done; there’s nothing else I can do at this point,” Tiefenbach said. “The zoning may be close, but they aren’t even close to being done.”

Contact Matt Gunn at matt@evergreenco.com.