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Applegate Fellowship addition challenged

RUCH ' Hoping it can head off church-versus-state entanglements, the county has struggled to resolve disputes over unauthorized expansion at Applegate Christian Fellowship.

At the same time, members of the Applegate Valley Community Forum are keeping up pressure to reduce the size of this popular church that creates traffic jams on Highway 238 during services.

They planned to file a complaint with the county today charging that an outdoor amphitheater used for services during the summer was illegally built on a floodplain and should be removed.

The main amphitheater is really the main issue, said Dolores Lisman, a member of the forum's land use committee. That's what allows them to have so many people at one time.

The church, with a congregation of more than 5,000, has attempted to rectify code violations raised by the county, including a bus barn and bridge built on a neighbor's property as well as structures built in a flood control basin without required environmental study. The county denied the church's conditional use permit after the violations were discovered, a move the church has appealed.

Joe Stroble, facility manager for the church, said the bus barn, which cost &

36;250,000 to build, has been moved at a cost of about &

36;125,000.

The church believes it is getting closer to compliance with county regulations, Stroble said, but he doesn't think the traffic that has concerned neighbors necessarily represents a problem.

This (the traffic) is a further test that God is doing this and not man, he said.

County Hearings Officer John Eads said he will make a decision in January over whether the church has complied, or will be able to comply, with flood control regulations.

If either side isn't happy with the outcome, it could set the stage for a legal struggle that could involve federal regulations that allow more latitude to religious organizations in land-use issues.

Assistant County Counsel Doug McGeary said the county has tried to avoid church-versus-state legal issues.

We don't want to throw religion in the middle of all this and complicate all these things, he said.

Instead, the county has been nudging the church toward compliance of code regulations, but McGeary insists the county isn't treating the church any differently than anybody else.

He said other Jackson County property owners have put the cart before the horse by building something then trying to get the necessary permits after the fact.

We are giving them the benefit of the doubt and shepherding them along, so to speak, toward a resolution, he said.

County Planner Raul Woerner said the church changed the flood control boundary to a quarter of its original size, endangering properties downstream because the restricted size would increase velocity in Forest Creek under flood conditions.

The church has enlarged its parking area three-fold and has erected two amphitheaters, a bridge and some outbuildings, all of which could be washed downstream in a flood, he said.

Woerner said the county denied the conditional use permit because of these flood hazards.

Jack Duggan, chairman of the Applegate Valley Community Forum, said neighbors aren't trying to prevent the church from operating in Ruch. It's not the use in dispute, he said. It's the size in dispute.

He added, There seems to be no way of lessening the impact, other than downsizing that church, and that is our goal.

Church attorney John Hassen said the flood control issues have been addressed by the church's engineer, Tim Bossard.

We intend to comply with whatever we have to do, said Hassen.

A bridge that is located on a neighbor's property near the eastern side of the church land will be repositioned and its foundations beefed up to meet all flood control requirements, said Hassen.

A bridge on the west side of the property, outside the floodplain, also will be strengthened in case of floods, he said.

Hassen said the church will shore up the creek banks to better handle flood conditions.

However, if the appeal is denied and the church can't meet all the conditions imposed by the county, the church might have to appeal the decision further.

At this point, Hassen said, it is premature to discuss legal actions based on church-versus-state issues, but he was also aware of laws passed recently that make it easier for religious organizations to deal with land-use regulations.

Reach reporter Damian Mann at 776-4476, or e-mail