January 28, 2010 in Washington Voices

Church looks for sign

Turning Point seeks zoning change to allow huge display
By The Spokesman-Review
 

A North Spokane congregation has discovered it’s easier to build a megachurch than a megasign.

The Turning Point Open Bible Church completed its new 53,388-square-foot church about 1 ½ years ago but is still waiting for permission to put up a readerboard sign on busy North Division Street.

Spokane County commissioners took testimony last week in an appeal that will decide whether the church can have a sign big enough to show more than a name to motorists traveling 50 mph on a five-lane federal highway.

Commissioners didn’t set a date for their decision.

“We would not have put a megachurch in there knowing that we were going to have small signage to try and attract folks to our facility,” Turning Point spokesman Paul Didier told commissioners. “We were caught off guard.”

The problem isn’t the size of the sign, which would be similar to those businesses already have installed in the rapidly developing Wandermere area.

It’s just that a zone change to allow the sign would open a neighborhood of single-family homes to apartments, stores, offices and even light industrial uses.

The Turning Point property at 11911 N. Division St. juts into an established neighborhood. The church is about 600 feet away from Division – barely visible from the road.

Turning Point is in a low-density residential zone, which permits churches but limits them to 32-square-foot signs that rise no higher than six feet.

Some of the homeowners on three sides of the church aren’t happy with Turning Point and its 700-car parking lot. They complain about noise, loss of privacy and lights shining through their bedroom windows.

The church building is taller than nearby homes, and the ground under it was graded 3 ½ to 4 feet higher than the surrounding land, homeowner Rod Schmidt told county commissioners.

Still, Schmidt and neighbor Bruce Schwartz said what really concerns them is the possibility of even more intense uses if the church gets the mixed-use zoning it is seeking.

“There’s no telling what they’re going to do in the future,” Schmidt said. “If they want to sell off some property to whatever business, they could do that if they get in financial trouble.”

Church leaders don’t really want the zone change, either – just the 20-foot-tall, 150-square-foot sign it would allow.

However, the county zoning code may turn the church’s long driveway into a tail that wags the dog.

It doesn’t matter that the church owns land next to the driveway that already is zoned for mixed use and big signs.

The mixed-use land is a separate parcel. Under the county zoning code, a Turning Point readerboard on that property would be an illegal “off-premise” sign.

The mixed-use land is a 1.6-acre road-front parcel the church split off so it eventually can be sold for commercial use.

County Hearing Examiner Michael Dempsey changed the parcel’s zoning to mixed use in September.

At the same time, he refused to rezone 9.6 additional acres just so the church could have a bigger sign.

“The signage issue for the church is more appropriately addressed through a variance application than by the proposed rezone,” Dempsey said in his written findings.

Schmidt agreed: “Something just doesn’t sit right with me that you have to rezone 9.6 acres to have a sign. Why can’t a variance be initiated to put that sign in?”

The reason, according to the church’s land-use consultant, Dwight Hume, is that seeking a variance likely would cost the church “another $5,000” and still fail.

“I wish we could (get a variance), but we can’t,” Hume told commissioners.

The county zoning code restricts variances to situations in which property owners would be deprived of benefits enjoyed by others “in the vicinity and under the same zone classification.

No low-density residential property in the area has an oversize sign, Hume noted.

He argued that commissioners could change the zoning to mixed use without fear that such a large, new church would be used for anything else.

Although Hume didn’t pursue it with commissioners, there’s another solution: Change just the driveway’s zoning.

Then bureaucrats, instead of neighbors, would fret about future problems.

County officials are loath to have more than one zone on a parcel of land. That can create a myriad of appraisal and taxation difficulties.

But it’s legal.

In fact, the Turning Point parcel includes a 1.5-acre home site that can’t be rezoned from low-density residential. That portion of the parcel is outside the area where the county comprehensive plan allows mixed-use zoning.

It would make no difference whether commissioners changed most of the parcel’s zoning or just the driveway. They’d still wind up with two zones on one parcel.

In this case, though, the feared tax snarls could be avoided because the church isn’t taxed.

“If they wanted to get creative about it, they could do that, and we could have our cake and eat it, too,” Hume said.


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