Tue, June 25

County P&Z recommends requiring public input for placement of religious institutions

The continuously growing debate over the placement of religious institutions in residential areas ­ since approval was recommended by the Yavapai County Planning and Zoning Commission Wednesday in Prescott ­ now heads to Cottonwood for a decision in May by the Board of Supervisors.

Speaking to the commission, Cottonwood resident Doug Cole said, "it seems like churches are given rights you and I don't have in the community."

According to the current county zoning code, it is acceptable to build a religious institution or charter school in a residential area without requiring a public input process that other developments usually have to go through.

"Hypothetically, a church the size of the University of Arizona could be built over my back fence ... Currently, there is no notification in place for a project like this," said Philip Hillman, the applicant who brought the request to change section 410 B and C of the zoning ordinance.

Hillman's initial request was to require religious institutions and charter schools to acquire use permits. The recommended approval by P&Z on Wednesday would, if approved by the Board of Supervisors, amend the code to require religious institutions and publicly funded charter schools to go through an administrative review process with public comment before they could be built. This means, that all the property owners and effective community organizations within 300 feet of a proposed religion-based development would be notified of the proposal. If any person or organization within that 300 feet oppose to the development, the development would have to go through the use permit acquisition process. If there is no opposition to the proposed development, the religious institution would do what it does now ­ request a building permit and start construction.

"I'm adamantly opposed to government intervention," Chairman Curt Garner said. "With that said, we should establish a certain amount of quantified developmentŠ[Religious institutions] should have some obligation to go through some type of review processŠI think the amended language is appropriate."

Some commission members did not agree to the amendment. Commissioner Jon Barnert spoke of consequences this will have on the county. He said the county would be forced to float the bill for many future legal expenses if this issue is approved.

"I'll tell you what will happen ­ we will lose everyone of these and we will have to pay the court costs," said Barnert, who was the lone opposed vote.

He added that people who spoke at the meeting had given certain institutions a "bad name."

"From what you have heard today, you would think these are raves or satanic establishments," he said.

Shiloh Hoggard, with Ledbetter Law Firm, agreed with Barnert.

"There are means for them to address their needs [without requiring use permits]," Hoggard said. "These people are not asking to build a meth house; they're proposing to build a church."

Ledbetter Law Firm is the firm that is representing the Verde Valley Christian Church. The Verde Valley Christian Church purchased land off of Tierra Serena in Cottonwood and proposed to construct a new facility in the area. Hillman filed for an appeal to the Yavapai County Board of Adjustments and Appeals in February that halted the construction of that church. The church is proposed to be built adjacent to his property. Hillman filed his request to amend the county zoning code at the same time he filed the appeal to the church.

Ledbetter Law Firm and the Verde Valley Christian Church are now appealing the Board of Adjustment and Appeals decision to the Superior Court.

Hillman brought up the issue of the church at Wednesday's meeting; however, Commissioner Curtis Lindner reminded the attendees that the Verde Valley Christian Church issue was not the issue that was before them that day.

"Your opening statements should be more narrowly focused on the issue we're talking about today," Lindner said. "ŠUse permits, not what happened to you."

Following those comments by Lindner, the commission opened the meeting to public comment. There were a handful of proponents for the amendment ­ many from the area off Camino Real where the Verde Valley Christian Church is proposed to be built.

Resident Rudy Stadelman commented that if the county did not take action, the public would never know about future developments that would be proposed in their community. Residents Gaye and Robbie Allen contributed.

"Government should step in and say we're going to take care of our citizens," Gaye said.

Additional proponents who spoke at the meeting were members of the county Board of Adjustment and Appeals Ed Jackson and Dale Hunter.

The commission closed public comment and began discussion among commission members. Commissioner William "Tex" Province said the fact that religious institutions are a "group that can do whatever they want" is not right. "There should be a review," he said.

Garner concluded his statements by stating that the amendment would probably not change the fact that a church could be built in a residential area. However, Commissioner Joan McClelland disagreed. She said she was proud to be on the commission at the time because she believes the amendment would help greatly.

The decision by the Board of Supervisors is scheduled for May 15 at the county building off Sixth Street in Cottonwood.

County overturns decision on Verde Valley Christian ChurchYavapai County Board of Supervisors unanimously decided to overturn a decision made by the Board of Adjustment and Appeals regarding the construction of Verde Valley Christian Church.

Supervisor Chip Davis said according to current zoning code, the church has the right to build in the area they proposed.

"Government does not have the right to arbitrarily take that right away," Davis said.

He added that he does understand the other side, but removing the right the church has to build is not the way to address the situation.

The Verde Valley Christian Church is proposed to be built on the old Indian School property located off Camino Real and Tierra Serena. The neighbors in the area are concerned with access to the proposed church as well as the size of it.

Applicant Phillip Hillman is discouraged that a church of any size could be built over his back fence. He brought an appeal to the Board of Adjustment and Appeals in February. The board voted for the appeal, and that decision halted the construction of the church.

Following that decision, the Verde Valley Christian Church filed to appeal the Board of Adjustment decision to the Superior Court.

As that case is in the works, the Board of Supervisors went into executive session on Monday, came out and decided to overturn the board's decision.

Davis said now the Superior Court judge will review the information and the current action taken by the Board of Supervisors and, he said, more than likely, make a summary judgment for the church.

Davis said before the Verde Valley Christian Church purchased the property, they looked at zoning and found that they would be able to construct a facility on that property. This as a basis for his decision to overturn the appeal.

Hillman and others who spoke at a County Planning and Zoning meeting on Wednesday do not agree with the action taken by the Board of Supervisors.

"The very purpose of the Board of Adjustment is to be a neutral body outside the influence of the executive branch, which is the Board of Supervisors," Hillman said. "How meaningful is the Board of Adjustments if the supervisors can just say, 'nope' [to an issue the Board of Adjustment decides on]?"

County Planner Elise Link said the action taken by the Board of Supervisors does not allow the Verde Valley Christian Church to begin pulling building permits. The issue will have to wait to see what action the Superior Court will take. Also, Hillman has filed another appeal requesting the church defines what it plans to build. Hillman and others in the area where the proposed church would be built feel unsure as to what exactly the church is proposing.

"If this use is going to be allowed, then we want it defined, and it is currently not," Hillman said.

Link said this appeal will further halt construction.