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CHURCH WINS

Jacksonville OKs First Presbyterian's permit

JACKSONVILLE ' After three years of debate that put this historic town in the national spotlight, the First Presbyterian Church is one step closer to building its 18,163-square-foot sanctuary in a residential neighborhood.

The City Council Tuesday voted four to two to approve a conditional use permit for a 400-seat sanctuary and educational building on 10 acres in the Pheasant Meadows subdivision on Singler Lane.The council's decision is just one of many in a battle that drew national attention to a constitutional debate over how far cities can go to restrict religious activities. It drew attention to cities' struggles to balance churches' First Amendment rights with neighborhood concerns.

In the most recent round, Friends of Jacksonville, a community group that opposes the expansion, appealed the issue to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.LUBA sent the matter back to the Jacksonville City Council for resolution after citing Councilman Jerry Mathern for bias on the issue. Mathern was not only a member of the church but had promised in his election campaign to help the church get a permit for its new building.

At Tuesday's meeting, council members Wally Hicks, Doris Crofoot, Donna Schatz (a church member) and Dean Paddison voted in favor of granting the church its conditional use permit.

Mayor Jim Lewis and Councilman Bill Leep voted to deny the permit. Mathern was not present on advice of Jacksonville City Attorney Kurt Knudsen.

Leep said the issue is land use and planning and is not about the church. He said he has been frustrated that voting against the project is seen as being anti-church by some members of the community.

If this were any other project, it wouldn't have come close to getting this far, Leep said Wednesday. This is the one area people don't want to say no to. But the project is not in compliance with our comprehensive plan. The streets are not adequate in width to handle the traffic, and the project will not have minimal adverse impact upon adjoining properties.

And this is the biggest issue: The conditions of approval don't speak in favor of mitigated impact. It (the project) has tremendous impact on that neighborhood.

The permit lists 15 conditions the church must meet, including increasing parking; prohibiting outdoor amplified events; prohibiting alcohol; creating a design review committee that includes neighbors; limiting exterior lights; planting perimeter trees; and installing a public basketball court.

Leep said the church will create an area of heavy traffic in the peripheral boundaries of the town. He said he is concerned that it will become an argument toward future development and spoil the town's historic integrity.

We're not reflecting vision, Leep said. As a historic town, we have an obligation to protect our charter and our historic integrity.

Leep and others have expressed concern that the church will expand even further once the new facility is built.

Pastor Larry Jung said he has a vision of his own. He said he wants to see the project completed and that membership growth is open-ended.

We're in service to our Lord, he said. Whether it's a 100-member church, a 1,000-member church or a 3,000-member church, I think we can accommodate everyone, and we're certainly not going to turn people away.

Jung said the original 120-year-old, 125-seat church in downtown Jacksonville almost closed in the 1970s for lack of attendance, but membership has now outgrown the space. Jung estimates average attendance at current worship services to be 320. He calculates that between active members and participants, 540 adults and children consider the First Presbyterian Church to be their place of worship. He said about 75 percent of the members live within five miles of the church.

Currently, multiple services are being held at Cascade Christian High School and at the old church, which Jung said will remain in use for traditional services and other activities.

Councilwoman Donna Schatz has been a member of the First Presbyterian Church for more than 20 years and consistently has supported the project since its inception.

Schatz said the city has already compromised its wagonwheel approach to community planning. Schatz said the idea of a heavy concentration of population in the city center spoking out to areas of less and less concentration was violated with the creation of Pheasant Meadows ' a 40-unit housing development.

One of the conditions is that four members of the local community are invited to join the design committee, said Schatz. It's certainly an invitation for participation by the affected community.

Carol Glaser lives in Pheasant Meadows. She and her family are potential future neighbors of the church. Glaser said she is not against the church but her concerns are for the neighborhood's children.

This is a narrow street with no sidewalks, she said. There are a lot of children in the neighborhood who play along these streets in our nice, quiet little subdivision. All this traffic is really going to affect our neighborhood. We're not against the church. It's the impact.

Glaser said she'd like to see the city work out alternative street routes for the church, if the project ultimately goes through.

Jung said he understands neighborhood concerns about impact, but said he feels the impacts will be minimal and that his church is determined to be a good neighbor.

We've impacted the neighborhood by Cascade Christian and they seem to be handling us just fine, said Jung. I think it's the fear of what might be instead of what actually is that people are most concerned about.

Members of the Friends of Jacksonville said building a large church in a small town will negatively impact adjacent neighborhoods and will set a dangerous precedent.

John Dodero is a member of Friends and a former city councilman. He said the council has been negligent in its duties and missed the interpretation of LUBA's ruling.

They wouldn't even let us put into the record our issues that went to bias, said Dodero, speaking of Tuesday's meeting. Our view is that LUBA had determined that Mathern had polluted the process and mandated the city to review the issue without his bias.

But they didn't even deliberate or discuss. They just voted in favor. They should have denied the application without prejudice and had the church present a new application.

That is the only way to evaluate in a fair and rational process. Exclude Mathern and go back to planning.

Dodero said Friends has not yet decided its next plan of action.

City Administrator Paul Wyntergreen said the church will present a finding of fact on the conditional use permit by the end of the month. The council is expected to review it on Jan. 7. At that point, if the council approves the finding of fact, there is a 21-day window for appeal.

If there is no appeal, the church will submit its building plans to the city's Historical and Architectural Review Commission.

Leep said he does not think the battle over the new church has ended.

Conditional use does not mean outright permitted use, he said.

Three-year struggle Here is a history of the Jacksonville First Presbyterian Church case:

November 1999: The Jacksonville Planning Commission denies the church's request for a conditional use permit to build a 400-seat sanctuary on 10 acres the church owns near the Pheasant Meadows subdivision. The congregation wants the new building because it has outgrown its present location, a 120-year-old historic building near downtown.

January 2000: The City Council reverses the Planning Commission's decision and approves the new church building.

February 2000: In a joint meeting with the Planning Commission, the City Council establishes conditions of approval, including a ban on weddings and funerals at the new building. The council also sets hours of operation for the new church. Media reports about the restrictions spark a public outcry.

March 2, 2000: The City Council reverses itself and denies the church permit, saying the conditions would infringe on the church's religious freedom.

March 24, 2000: The church appeals the city's denial to the state Land Use Board of Appeals.

January 2001: The City Council votes 5-2 to hold new hearings on the church request for a conditional use permit. The church drops its LUBA appeal.

May 2001: The City Council votes 5-2 to approve the conditional use permit.

May 2001: Friends of Jacksonville, a group of about 10 people including Pheasant Meadows neighbors and former City Council members, appeals to LUBA.

May 15, 2002: LUBA remands the case to the City Council for a new hearing.

Dec. 3, 2002: City Council approves conditional use permit on a 4-2 vote.

Bret Reordan, 11, and Madeline Schwartz, 6, play on Singler Lane in Jacksonville. The narrow street in the Pheasand Meadows subdivision may become themain route to a new facility for First Presbyterian Church in Jacksonville. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell