The Rock wins round in bid to build gym

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By Vicky Gits

The Jefferson County Planning Commission unanimously endorsed The Rock of Southwest Baptist Church’s rezoning request to build a 16,000-square-foot gymnasium on church grounds on West Alamo Place west of Kipling Parkway.

The proposal still has to be approved by the Board of County Commissioners. A hearing has been scheduled for 9 a.m. Tuesday, April 8.

The March 26 meeting at the Jefferson County administration building lasted about three and a half hours as commissioners struggled to reach a compromise on building sizes. About 40 neighborhood residents attended the meeting.

Planning commissioners in attendance were Shirley Johnson, James Allred, James Spaanstra, Alan Fox, Joe Siccardi, Rick Nelson and Alan Jones. Nelson did not vote because he did not attend an earlier hearing.

The church has an average attendance of 602 adults and 200 children on Sundays, up from about 400 total in 2002. It holds three services on Sundays, from 8:30 to noon, which it would like to decrease to two services.

Going against the recommendation of planning staff, six commissioners eventually agreed the 16,000-square-foot accessory building would be acceptable as long as the existing church building stays the same size.

Technically, the zoning resolution allows two buildings not totaling more than 40,000 square feet of gross floor area, with the existing building footprint not to exceed 21,105 square feet.

“The motion as it was written did not exactly represent the commissioners’ intent,” said case manager Alan Tiefenbach. The idea was to approve the 16,000-square-foot gym building on the condition the size of the existing building remain the same, and to give the church a little wiggle room, he said.

The existing church building, which was formerly a YMCA, contains about 26,000 square feet of floor space. Commissioners agreed to give the church an additional 1,000 or so square feet to connect the two buildings.

Although there was some confusion about the numbers, the decision allows a total of about 43,000 square feet of floor space, or about 20,000 square feet less than the 63,000 square feet the church is entitled to build on land under existing zoning.

Planning commission chairman Spaanstra summed up the proceedings, saying: “The concern I have is they have the right to go to 63,000. We have cut that from 51,000 to 40,000. If we don’t do something, all of the restrictions would go away.”

Church representatives seemed to be satisfied with the decision to settle for 40,000 square feet or so, although they acknowledged there was some misunderstanding over the size of the existing church building.

“I’m not sure what they said,” said Brian Fosdick, pastor of The Rock of Southwest Baptist Church.

“We are generally in acceptance. But there’s a lot of confusion on the numbers,” said Tim Price, director of ministries.

Time for compromise

Westridge resident George Kovacs said: “The homeowners probably would accept the win-win solution, but I can’t speak for all the homeowners. It’s a compromise that I would feel comfortable with because the commissioners are saying the church has the right to do more. They can legally build a 63,000-square-foot building.”

Kovacs said he felt the church could have been more up-front about its plan in the beginning.

“It was interesting to see how the commissioners handled it. I think they were handling it very professionally not to harm either side. They had to make sure all their bases were covered. ee They know it was a sensitive issue and were trying to appease both sides,” Kovacs said.

Foe: ‘Already too large’

Before the decision came down, Westridge homeowner Eric Struble argued against the planned expansion on behalf of the homeowner association.

“The Rock is detrimental right now, today,” Struble said. “The church is already too large for a residential area.” The church creates traffic that makes it difficult for some people to get out of their driveways, Struble said.

He said it was dangerous to locate a multi-use building so close to neighboring Westridge Elementary School. “It could be extremely dangerous if an event ended at the same time the school day ended,” Struble said. He urged the commissioners to consider the impact on real estate values and wildlife.

“When they purchased the property, The Rock assured us it would remain a small church at 21,000 square feet. We supported a community church, not a mega-church. We could work with them if they agreed to stay a community church,” Struble said.

He objected to the implication contained in an attorney’s letter that the community was discriminating against The Rock because of its religious beliefs. “No one has ever stated an objection against The Rock on the basis of religious belief. It’s offensive to think there could be a lawsuit based on religious discrimination,” Struble said.

Religious implications

A letter from attorney Kimberly Martin of Otten, Johnson of Denver to the planning commission dated March 25 brought up the religious discrimination topic. About two hours into the meeting, the commissioners called an executive session to have a conversation with the assistant county attorney about the implications of that allegation. The executive session lasted about 20 minutes.

The letter attacks the planning staff’s opposition on grounds the church has substantially met all of the legal requirements of the zoning, as well as the South Jefferson County Community Plan.

“Apparently, staff thinks the county should force the applicant to add the previously approved square footage in the most difficult and expensive manner possible. It is precisely this type of senseless obstructive governmental behavior that led Congress to adopt the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000,” the letter said.

The law prohibits local governments from adopting land use rules that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise, except for a compelling reason, Martin says in the letter.

When the meeting resumed after the executive session, several people expressed concerns about future growth, increased traffic and conflict with the elementary school.

“Right now getting out of the driveway is a huge issue. If future events take place it creates a huge problem,” said Doyle James, who has lived on West Berry Place since 1980.

A no-crime area

“They are a good neighbor, and we’d like to keep it that way,” one resident said. “It really is a quiet, no-crime area. What scares me is this is a gym and could be used for other things.”

Church officials objected to rumors that the new building would become an events center and attract craft and trade shows. It would be used for youth activities, such as basketball, which now take place in the sanctuary. They also denied there would be programs for alcoholics or drug abusers.

“We have no interest in operating an events center. It does not meet our goals. The gym is for youth and normal church activities. We are not changing our programs,” Price said.

He denied that spun-off or related churches would be brought back to The Rock for large events.

“It’s not about money and being a mega-church,” Fosdick said. “Our goal is to spin off people. We just sent off 100 to start a new church. Next we will send off 150.”

“A mega-church is over 2,000. I can’t do that. My heart’s not in it,” said Fosdick, who said his personal mission is to be a minister who cares about youth. He said it was sad to see his words get twisted.

Naomi Ashcroft, president of the Westridge Homeowners Association, said there is not enough room for two large activities. “I have seen a school carnival at the same time as a church event, and it was just packed. If we needed emergency vehicles, it would have been a problem. I think it’s a something to think about,” she said.

In the recommendation to the commissioners, planner Tiefenbach recommended against the expansion on grounds the church is “already at or beyond the scale of what is appropriate for the surrounding neighborhood.”

Churches by size compared to The Rock

(by footprint in square feet)

57,000 St. Francis Cabrini Parish

54,150 Southern Gables Evangelical Free

52,800 Centennial Community

44,180 Light of the World

60,000 West Bowles Community

56,600 Foothills Bible

37,500 Abiding Hope Lutheran

24,800 Columbine Hills Nazarene

21,105 The Rock (current)

33,105 The Rock (with youth building)

43,000 The Rock (at full build, in eight to 10 years) *

* Total square-foot floor space, 51,000 proposed