In January the FRCA was notified of proposed changes at the Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church on Saters’s Lane, north of Maryvale. Specifically, Baptist Family and Children’s Services Inc, a non profit entity, wants to buy the Baptist Church built in 1995 on Saters’s Lane and use its office space, while the congregation continued to meet in the sanctuary.
The proposal seemed innocuous enough, but would require a special exception. To obtain a special exception a landowner must file a Petition with the County and have a hearing before the County Zoning Officer. After reviewing the matter, FRCA Director Dan Meenan suggested questions about the proposed use; and the answers were alarming, e.g., the proposed use would have 14 full-time and 2 half-time employees.
So, the FRCA Board decided to notify nearby residents. The hearing was set for April 24. The FRCA sent out its notice about April 16. Within days, substantial community opposition emerged, including Bob Chertkof, President of the Clearings Community Association; the community met and decided to hire counsel. By April 21, Azrael Franz, Esquire, had been retained, and Dan Meenan had sent another notice to the community stating additional information he had discovered.
On April 24th, W. Franz and about 20 local residents appeared at the hearing which went well for the community as testimony revealed that the Church congregation is small and barely surviving financially, while Baptist Family is large and currently operates from its headquarters in Columbia, NM, for which it pays rent of $175,000/year. Robert H. Gerstmyer, Executive Director of Baptist Family, testified that it wants to relocate from Columbia to Saters Lane. Mr. Gerstmyer is also a member of the Chestnut Ridge Baptist Church and would soon be its new part-time pastor, as the current full-time pastor is resigning due to the diminishing congregation.
On May 20, the County Hearing Officer issued his Opinion in which he found that Baptist Family is a charitable organization and not a religious entity. Thus, if the property were transferred to Baptist Family, the property would cease to be owned by a religious institution; and therein was the “fatal flaw to the Petitioners’ special hearing request.”
Specifically, the Hearing Officer found that the Development Plan now in force mandates that the church building is to be used for church services and church-related activities by church members and guests [which restriction] was specifically negotiated and placed on the Development Plan by the residents and neighbors … in 1994 [because they] were very concerned at that time that the church property would be utilized by some other business entity ….
In essence, [if the Petition were granted,] the subject property would be converted into an office building with a subsidiary lease to the … Church to hold services on Sundays for a small number of its members. This property is zoned RC 5 and such a transition to office use is not permitted within that zone. For these reasons, the Petitioners’ special hearing request must be denied.
Baptist Family has not, however, abandoned its quest, and the community is in negotiations with its counsel.
The FRCA will keep you posted.