Wrath over church - LancasterOnline: News

Wrath over church

Love thy neighbor? Congregation and residents collide over new building

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Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009 12:20 am | Updated: 5:08 pm, Wed Sep 11, 2013.

Call it a collision between church and state.

For more than two years, residents of the East Hempfield neighborhood "The Meadows" have fought plans to build a 26,000-square-foot church at the edge of their quiet, upscale development. In more than a dozen late-night meetings, residents claimed the proposal, by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, meant that traffic in their neighborhood was going to spike, and that the church was simply out of character with the surrounding community.

In February, the residents lost a round when the township supervisors voted unanimously to give preliminary approval to the church plan. But residents vowed to fight on, and the controversy landed in the Lancaster County Court of Common Pleas in March, when they filed an appeal of the township's decision.

Now it looks like the case could end up in federal court, as well.

That's because township supervisors last week seemed to have a change of heart, and voted to deny the church a 90-day extension to file information about the plan. The move infuriated the church's attorney, Marc D. Jonas of Blue Bell, who called it discriminatory and said it may violate federal law which restricts communities from impeding church's rights.

"They really blew it," said Jonas. "They showed their true colors, and voted against a church. A church!"

Township solicitor Stephen Kraybill said the township agreed that if a government body "artificially" restricts a church, he said, "it could be held accountable."

"That's been mentioned in this case," said Kraybill, "but I don't think it's appropriate."

Jonas, however, said a judge may decide.

"I've got to get this church built," he said. "And if I need to take it to the federal courts to get it built, I will."

Not a megachurch

As churches go, the proposed Mormon church is big - but no megachurch.

By comparison, Calvary Church in Manheim Township recently completed an addition of 60,000 square feet - more than twice the size of the East Hempfield plan.

"This will be an incredibly quiet church, given what churches have become," Jonas said.

That's small comfort for Steve Van Duzer, who lives on Sunwood Lane directly across from where the church will be built. He said the church footprint will be about 16 times that of his house.

Another neighbor, Doug Brossman, said the church has owned the property for more than a decade, "and I think everyone in the neighborhood knew a church was going to be built there.

"If it was scaled like a regular neighborhood church, we wouldn't have a problem with it."

Jonas doubts that. "I think they'd oppose anything," he said.

He belittled the neighbors' objections, saying that "what we've been faced with is purely bogus. ... They presented engineering studies that I frankly thought were an embarrassment."

And he vowed to "attack" their court appeal, calling it "frivolous," and suggesting it might invite a countersuit.

"I hope the neighbors have a nice war chest; they're going to need it very shortly," said the church attorney.

The church first went to the township zoning hearing board in 2006; in East Hempfield, Kraybill said, churches need a special exception to build in the R-1 zone.

But the dispute might never have developed into a full-scale war had the Pennsylvania Department of Transportation permitted the church to construct a main entrance and exit along Harrisburg Pike.

But PennDOT said it was unsafe for vehicles to turn left, across traffic, onto westbound Harrisburg Pike from the church lot. Instead, traffic heading west would have to exit onto Sunwood Lane, drive east to Sylvan Lane and turn onto Harrisburg Pike at a traffic signal.

All traffic will have to enter the church via Sunwood Lane, as well.

The church, neighbors note, will feature almost 300 parking spaces. While church lawyers have said seating capacity will be 320, neighbors say the church may host conferences twice a year, at which as many as 1,500 people, and hundreds of cars, could come streaming through their neighborhood.

"I picked my daughter up from the school bus the other day, and there were people walking their dogs, out for a walk," said neighbor Karen Schmitz. "There were eight of us there." Traffic, she fears, will put an end to all that.

Jo-Ann Merris, a church member and East Hempfield resident, is saddened by such fears. On any given Sunday, said Merris, a mere 40 to 50 cars are likely to enter and exit the church lot.

Church members, she said, "don't want to cause problems or confrontation."

That said, she does suspect some neighbors, at least initially, were opposed to the idea of a Mormon church in the neighborhood. At early meetings on the proposal, she said, she overheard comments about Mormons and multiple wives; and she specifically remembers one instance where she turned in response to such a comment, and a woman told her: "Turn around, Mormon, what are you looking at?"

"This has escalated to the point where you fear what you don't understand," said Merris. "I don't know what the real underlying issue is, but this is just a church. Just a meetinghouse."

Quoting law

As such, said attorney Jonas, the congregation has a right to build.

The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 asserts that "Religious assemblies cannot function without a physical space adequate to their needs and consistent with their theological requirements," according to the U.S. Department of Justice Web site. "The right to build, buy, or rent such a space is an indispensable adjunct of the core First Amendment right to assemble for religious purposes."

Before last week, said Jonas, township officials had acted in the spirit of the law - although both residents and township solicitor Kraybill said Jonas had invoked the law, and raised the specter of a lawsuit, earlier this year.

"The township had stood up and done the right and legal thing," said Jonas, with supervisors voting 5-0 in February for preliminary approval.

But Wednesday, the board voted 3-2 to deny a 90-day extension so the church could comply with conditions established in February.

Supervisors Doug Brubaker and Heidi Wheaton said the church hadn't answered questions about lighting, landscaping and building capacity. A third supervisor, Brett Miller, went even further, saying the church had insisted upon a "hasty" approval of its preliminary plan, and now wanted more time to complete the application process.

Jonas wasn't at the meeting; his associate Julie Von Spreckelsen was, and according to a report in the Intelligencer Journal, she threatened a lawsuit if the plan was blocked.

The morning after the vote, Jonas was livid. He said the church neither requested nor needed the extension, and had already submitted all the required information.

Jonas said the supervisors' move showed they were more interested in playing to residents' emotions than the rule of law.

"The township has shown a willingness and an inclination to oppress this church. ... The township is trying to deprive the church of its right to build, [and if it doesn't stop] this goes to federal court, and they will be paying my fees."

But supervisor Miller said his vote certainly wasn't intended to deny the church its rights. "The plan can still go forward," he said, but supervisors are not required to grant the church an extension - and merely opted not to.

"This applicant has basically demanded that the plan should be passed straight away, under threat of lawsuit," said Miller. "I thought the citizens had a germane point [in arguing that the board shouldn't grant the extension] and I'm supposed to represent the citizens."

Still, solicitor Kraybill said he has told township officials that "even if they have residents opposed to it, you can't reject it on that basis" due to the federal law.

But Meadows resident Dan Crocker said the issue is not that a church is building on the site - but rather, what it seeks to build.

"Not once has anyone said, 'We don't want a church,' " said Crocker. Rather, neighbors want the township to follow its own ordinances.

And while traffic and lighting have been major issues for the residents, their appeal focuses on three narrow issues, asserting that the church lot (actually, two lots that have been combined into one property on which the church wishes to build) is too small for the facility, that the proposal violates an easement, and that supervisors miscalculated the percentage of the lot covered by an "impervious surface," like a parking lot.

Harrisburg attorney Bill Cluck, who is becoming the go-to attorney for local citizens' groups - representing neighbors who oppose the relocation of the Norfolk Southern rail yard and citizens who oppose construction of a shopping center across from Long's Park - represents the Meadows residents, and filed their appeal.

"Our hope is the court will send this back to the supervisors," he said. "Mr. Jonas says the neighbors don't want a church, but nobody is complaining about the siting of a church.

"Mr. Jonas tends to strike a nerve," said Cluck. "And that tends to make it difficult for neighbors to have a discussion about what's best for everybody."


Gil Smart is associate editor of the Sunday News. E-mail him at gsmart@lnpnews.com, or phone 291-8817.

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