April 14, 2011 in Washington Voices

Church zone change delayed

Council will wait for staff to act on St. John Vianney’s request
By The Spokesman-Review
 

After more than an hour of public testimony Tuesday night, the Spokane Valley City Council heeded neighborhood concerns about a proposed zone change requested by St. John Vianney Catholic Church and decided to postpone any action for a month while city staff negotiates a developer’s agreement with the property owner.

The agreement would allow the city to negotiate certain items like building height and allowed uses for the land. Such an agreement is tied to the land even if the property is later sold. Catholic Charities has announced that it wants to build a 38- to 40-unit, low-income senior housing complex on the property and many neighbors have expressed concern that the complex may be sold and become something else in the future.

“What guarantee do we have that this property somewhere down the line doesn’t change hands?” said resident Kelly Clinger.

Residents also said they didn’t like the size of the proposed complex, though several called it a 52-unit complex. “We fear traffic will increase,” said Levi Strauss. “We fear crime will increase. We have drastic fears our neighborhood will lose its charms.”

Shelly Stevens said the church has not been a good neighbor. “Good neighbors stop when they’re asked to stop,” she said. “Regardless of who is living there, this will only hurt our neighborhood. We will not be guilted into feeling bad. We stand in front of our property and protect what is ours.”

Karen Strauss said she is concerned about children in the neighborhood. “You’re going to have a lot of elderly people wandering around,” she said. “I just fear for the children’s safety.”

St. John Vianney parish council chairwoman Marie Raschko-Sokol said she wanted to clarify that the church was only planning up to 40 units. “It is not a 52-unit building, nor has it ever been stated that it would be a 52-unit building,” she said. She said the church would be willing to work with neighbors on the design of the building. Her statement was met with derisive laughter from some in the crowd packing the city council chambers.

Catholic Charities director Rob McCann said he was grateful for the community comments. Since the complex would be HUD housing, Catholic Charities would be required to maintain it as senior low-income housing for at least 40 years. McCann said his organization owns several low-income senior housing facilities that are well past that 40-year mark. He said he was willing to sign an agreement to restrict the use of the property to only low-income senior housing for as long as the city wishes. “It will not be anything else,” he said.

Attorney Mike Connelly, who is consulting with the city on the proposed comprehensive plan amendment to change the zoning, said if the council votes against the zone change it may not make a difference. If the church applies for a building permit it would likely bring a federal law called the Religion Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act into play, he said. The law states that a city cannot use zoning to restrict a church’s activities that fulfill its religious mission because it would be a violation of the church’s rights. Helping the poor and elderly is part of the Catholic Church’s mission statement.

“It’s likely the courts would say you have to come up with a way to accommodate that,” Connelly said. While the council has the power to deny the comprehensive plan amendment, which was the recommendation of the planning commission, the council should “be aware of the consequences down the road.”

Doing a developer’s agreement gives the council some control, he said. “If you just say no and they apply for building permit, it will probably never get back to you.”

Councilman Dean Grafos liked Connelly’s suggestion. “We could, in a sense, restrict some of the density,” he said. “I think that’s a good option for us.”

Mayor Tom Towey and councilmen Gary Schimmels and Bill Gothmann also agreed to go ahead with a developer’s agreement. Councilwoman Brenda Grassel was absent.

New Councilman Arne Woodard listened to the public testimony on the issue, but left the room during council discussion on the proposed zone change. He was previously on the planning commission and was one of only two commissioners that voted to allow the zone change. Woodard also disclosed that he is Catholic and attended St. John Vianney School in the first grade.

“I made a public vote,” he said. “I believe I can be impartial. I want to be fair to the church and the neighborhood. This is where I should recuse.”


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