Safety should trump all
A conditional use application filed by Grace Chinese Baptist Church of Richmond to build 11,900 square feet of facilities for worship, fellowship and instruction on a 22 acre parcel of land on Rt. 250 between Centerville and Oilville was addressed by the Goochland Planning Commission at its January 26 meeting.
The property is on the north side of Rt. 250 just west of its intersection with Three Chopt Road between the ATT tower and the Wedgewood Properties/Joyner land.
Commissioners voted 9-0, to recommend approval of the application to the supervisors, who are expected to vote on the matter at their March 2 meeting.
The CUP application was filed with the county in August, 2009. Since that time at least two meetings were held with representatives of the church and neighboring property owners to share information and gather community input about the project. These community meetings have become a standard part of the process for major changes in land use.
Neighbors raised concerns about insufficient site distance in both directions at the proposed entrance to permit safe access and egress to the property. At the hearing, photographs and traffic studies were presented as evidence that there is adequate site distance.
Because Rt. 250 is two lanes wide the county required both a left and right turn lanes to keep traffic moving safely past the church property, which has more than 1,350 feet of road frontage.
The church agreed to install the right turn lane as part of its construction, all but one of its 71 member families live to the east of the church, but asked that the left turn lane be deferred until 2013. The request, which the planning commission included in its recommendation, includes a bond to ensure that the lane is built. All of the land for the turn lanes will come from the subject parcel, however, portions of the right turn lane could impinge on a wetland. This will require the blessing of the Army Corps of Engineers.
However, given the county’s dismal record of enforcing this sort of thing — remember the Richmond Strikers who promised for years to build turn lanes that were part of their CUP for land on Pouncey Tract Road but never did — both turn lanes must be built at the outset.
The members of Grace Chinese Baptist are fine folks who have been borrowing space for worship for a long time. They are anxious to move into their own church home, which is understandable.
However, in addition to the one member who would use the left turn lane to enter the property to attend church, vehicles will undoubtedly come from both directions during construction. The road has no shoulders and it takes very little disruption in the flow of traffic to cause major backups that can extend miles.
The safety of travelers on Rt. 250 must trump the budgetary concerns of the church. West Creek Church and Salem Baptist were also required to build turn lanes in both directions. The CUP application indicated that the church plans to use some of the land for outdoor recreation. Should this include a soccer field, expect cars to come from every direction and soon.
Another concern raised by neighbors was the proposed design of the church. An elevation of the proposed structure shows a large worship/fellowship building with a long low structure containing classrooms attached. It is not the most attractive building, but, because the land is outside of any village or overlay district, the church can build pretty much whatever it chooses as long as it meets building codes and observes height restrictions. Neighbors objected to the high looming nature of the proposed building. Church representatives contended that the building would be dwarfed by the communications tower.
Comments made during the hearing seem to indicate that the church may be on a strict budget. Given the location of the property, in a rural area next to a restored barn, it is curious that the architect did not make the church visually reminiscent of a barn. According to church spokespersons, the congregation needs a high ceiling. A barn like building would easily accommodate that requirement while harmonizing with the agricultural nature of the area. It might even be more economical to build.
There is no time limit on the CUP, which means that there will probably be little oversight on the part of the county as to whether the conditions are being observed. In recent years, churches have been granted CUPs with no time limits.
Churches are required to obtain CUPs only if they build facilities in excess of 10,000 square feet. A religious facility built on Three Chopt Road a few years back did not need to go through the CUP process because it stayed below the square footage threshold.
Perhaps it is time for Goochland to consider a special zoning classification for churches. Conditional use permits are a Band Aid approach to land use changes that offers too many opportunities for arbitrary, if not discriminatory, treatment of property owners. It often does little to safeguard the property rights of neighbors.
This case illustrates the delicate nature of land use decisions. Whose rights and interests take precedence? Ultimately, land use laws are designed to deprive landowners of their property rights. Finding a workable balance between private property rights and public good is all too often an elusive goal. That doesn’t mean we should stop trying.