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'We're not here to fight'

Senior pastor at Applegate Christian Fellowship says congregation will right past land-use wrongs, work to mend broken fences

Acknowledging years of mistakes, the senior pastor of Applegate Christian Fellowship said it's time to practice what he preaches and help heal the rift with the community.

We're not here to fight, said Peter-John Courson, who took over leadership of the church in Ruch from his father, Jon Courson, two and a half years ago. We're not here to dig our heels in. We're here, as much as possible, to allow folks in this community to be more comfortable.

The largest church in Jackson County, with an estimated 5,000 members, has had a decade-long dispute with neighbors and the county because it has erected structures without permits, built a bus barn and a portion of a bridge on a neighboring property and altered the floodplain of Forest Creek.

In addition, the popularity of the church causes traffic jams in the rural Applegate and has led to complaints about noise from the outdoor amphitheater during the summer months.

The 28-year-old pastor said the church will do whatever it takes to set things right with the community because the kind of ill will that has arisen from these problems runs counter to his Christian ideals.

— All I know is that if the characteristic of love is to be the greatest distinction of the fellowship and of a believer in general, then if that's not being seen or felt in the community around about us, then we really need to take a good hard look at ourselves and see what adjustments we need to make, he said.

Courson stopped short of saying that he would remove the main outdoor amphitheater if it ultimately is found to disrupt the floodplain.

I'm not necessarily a lawyer or into the legal aspects of the situation, said Courson. I just wanted to share the overall heart of the fellowship.

An engineering analysis prepared for the church indicates the amphitheater could stay, but the fellowship would have to remove the smaller children's amphitheater, relocate a bridge and remove other structures and fill dirt that constrict the creek. Courson said the church is eager to make these changes if the county approves the church's engineering study on March 17.

The bus barn that was built on a neighboring property has been moved, but the church is waiting for county approval before removing the bridge.

County officials are trying to find a way to correct years of expansion that have led to the shrinking of Forest Creek to a quarter of its original width.

I think that, yes, they are trying to address everything, said Mike Mattson, floodplain coordinator for the county planning department.

But Mattson said the question ultimately would be determined by the county hearings officer, who will make a ruling on the church's plans.

One possible stumbling block is the mitigation measure the church has proposed to keep the main amphitheater. The church wants to extend the floodplain area to the north side of its property.

One of the big issues is whether that is going to work, said Mattson.

A separate engineering report prepared for Dolores Lisman, a member of Friends of Forest Creek, claims that the church's report doesn't have accurate data in its description of the floodplain.

The city of Jacksonville has sent a letter this month to Jackson County objecting to any backdoor CUP (conditional use permit) amendment for the amphitheater, saying that a traffic study needs to be completed before any permit could be granted.

Both the letter and the Lisman report will be considered by the hearings officer.

With the question of the amphitheater up in the air, Courson said the church will still consider other ways to improve its relations with the community.

This summer, the fellowship plans to have a free weekly barbecue to keep church members after services so that all the traffic doesn't leave at once.

The church is also thinking of adding more services or staggering the services to help ease the traffic concerns.

Cathy Pennington, who runs Pennington Farms in the Applegate with her husband, Sam, and their five children, has seen a change in leadership at the church.

The father was all about heaven, said the church member. And this (the time on earth) was just a blip along the way.

She appreciates both the father's and the son's styles, but said the younger Courson is mindful of down-to-earth concerns.

He's more like your older brother, she said. His teachings tend to be more of practical everyday life.

I'd say Peter-John is a little more hellfire and brimstone. He can really get into that evangelistic mode. But, both have the same end goals.

Pennington has heard about the criticism of the fellowship, but she doesn't think the church has done anything out of malice and is willing to correct anything it has done wrong.

If in any way we're offending you we will try to make it right, she said, summarizing the church's attitude.

Ellen Levine, chairwoman of the Greater Applegate Community Development Corp. (CDC), said recent developments at the church are encouraging.

It would be nice to think we could resolve the problems, she said. The nonprofit CDC seeks grants for Applegate School and manages Cantrall-Buckley Park.

Levine said the overriding issue is the amphitheater, whose popularity in the summer is responsible for much of the traffic in the Applegate.

I think from the CDC point of view that the community and the church need to have an ongoing conversation ' not just one time, she said.

Courson said he would like to have more conversations with the community, and wants the church to bend over backwards to set things right.

We not only want to work with the county ' we want to flow with everything they are sending our way because that's what love does, he said.

Applegate Christian Fellowship?s popular amphitheater is at the center of an ongoing dispute with neighbors regarding noise, traffic and floodplain issues. Mail Tribune / Bob Pennell - Mail Tribune Bob Pennell