by Eric Ginsburg
Neighbors are incensed about Westminster Presbyterian Church’s plans to build a parking lot amidst residential properties, arguing that not only would the plan be ugly and lower property values, but also that it is illegal.
When Rich and Tricia Fisher learned that Westminster Presbyterian Church planned to open a youth house next door to it, they welcomed their new neighbors. After all, the Fishers were members of the Greensboro church, located across the street, and believed in it.
Rich would pick up the lot, blowing leaves on the property too. He had a key, in case someone left a light on after a Boy Scout meeting or Sunday school session for middle and high schoolers, and he’d pop over to flip off the switch. Tricia once taught a Sunday school class at the house, and their kids spent time there, too.
“We were more worried about disturbing them than they ever disturbed us,” Rich Fisher said.
The leader of the church had approached the Fishers at the time, letting them know about plans for the youth house before undertaking the venture, and confided in Rich that the church’s proposals were outside of city regulations, adding that they didn’t intend to do anything to the house that would prevent its return to residential use in the future, Fisher said.
But that saga began more than a decade ago, and now the Fishers are part of a group spearheading a campaign to stop the church from expansion. Church leadership has changed, as have plans for the lot and another next to it. In the process, the Fishers quit the church.
The root of the current conflict, which is far from resolved, is a plan to add a parking lot as part of city-mandated overhaul renovations to the youth house. Opponents contend that Westminster Presbyterian Church has intentionally deceived residents and the city, arguing that the parking-lot plans break the law and set a dangerous precedent that would allow for church sprawl into neighborhoods throughout the city.
In a statement on its website, the church says it is following city instructions and will add landscaping to beautify the lot, adding that the building itself will look much the same from the exterior after required renovations.
“Hamilton Forest is our neighborhood,” the statement reads. “We’re the original neighbor, having called this home since 1859. When a new street was added next to our chapel, we requested that this new street be called Westminster Drive.
“We are excited about upgrading our youth house and continuing with our growing youth ministry,” it continues. “We are committed to make these proposed changes with as little impact on the community as possible.”
But some neighbors aren’t buying it.
Jim Mahoney, who lives next door to the proposed parking lot with his wife Linda, said nobody knew about the plans for the lot until Linda saw a surveyor on the property and inquired about what was happening. The church was trying to fly under the radar, Mahoney said. And Fisher agreed — when neighbors learned about the plans for additional parking, they were “alarmed,” and though they collectively approached Westminster, the church’s initial reaction was “We don’t have to meet with you,” Fisher said.
Mahoney and Fisher said that the church operated the youth house for several years without making required coding changes until 2008, when the city informed the church that it couldn’t continue utilizing the space unless specific changes were implemented. The church dropped plans for renovations at the time, they said, but ignored direction that the space couldn’t be used. When the neighbors learned about possible expansion plans next to the house and complained to the city in 2014, the city stepped in and halted use of the space unless several upgrades were made to the property, Mahoney and Fisher said.
Mike Kirkman, the city-planning manager, more or less confirmed this narrative, though he said he isn’t completely clear on the historical timeline.
Kirkman said Westminster didn’t proceed with a 2008 permit request, but the city didn’t investigate continued usage until 2014 when complaints arose, adding that the city operates on a complaint basis.
Neighbors argue that the youth house should be classified as an “accessory use,” a legal designation that requires religious institutions to keep certain activities and buildings on adjacent properties. Because the house is across the street, this argument essentially says any church use of the building should be a non-starter, let alone further development plans.
But the church says that the youth house can be considered a “separate religious assembly,” and the city approved it as such in late 2015. That designation requires a certain number of parking spots per square footage of principal worship area, Kirkman said.
“From the city’s perspective, ownership doesn’t in and of itself say it’s principal versus accessory use,” he said, adding that a good comparison might be college campuses with satellite properties or a church that also operate a mission church.
A principal use, separate religious assembly requires “significant changes” to the building to make it handicapped accessible, safer and parking accessible, Kirkman said, adding that a determining factor is whether the space can function as an independently used space.
Mahoney calls the designation “a fiction.”
“If you buy Greensboro’s new theory that we can’t tell people what a religious assembly is, if you buy that, it means any church in the city can move any function in there, move it across the street and call it a separate religious assembly.”
Fisher said the law is written to restrict accessory use for a reason, and that dubbing any related activity as a separate religious institution is a bogus way to skirt the law.
“It’s written that way to prevent a church or religious assembly from taking over a neighborhood,” he said, adding that churches already have free reign with any contiguous properties but shouldn’t be allowed to hop across the street.
Calling the youth house a separate worship space requires a parking lot, Fisher said.
“But who will park there?” he asked, pointing out that parents will drive to attend their main church and drop of their middle schoolers at the youth house. That drives home the neighbors’ argument that the youth house isn’t a standalone religious facility, but rather is woven into the parent church.
The Fishers and Mahoneys aren’t alone; signs opposing Westminster’s plans dot the neighborhood and a website called stopchurchsprawl.com projects their grievances. Neighbors have retained a lawyer to help fight the plans before the city’s board of adjustment.
Mayor Nancy Vaughan is a member of the church, but said she hasn’t kept up with the plans or the current controversy.
“I hate to say it, but I’m kind of a lapsed member at the moment, but this is my home church,” she said. “I don’t have a lot of knowledge about it because I haven’t been at church lately and it hasn’t come before city council, but I will say this is an issue we’re finding with a lot of other churches. I know that the church wants to be a good neighbor and if there is room for a compromise, I know they’ll do it.”
Vaughan added that the church did open up a second campus in north Greensboro to alleviate some of the crowding at Westminster, and said she can “certainly understand” why neighbors would be concerned.
Councilman Mike Barber is a member of the church too, she said. Barber couldn’t be reached for comment before press time.
Church member Cam Creech, who chairs Westminster’s property committee, said there are no plans for the church to expand beyond the existing plans, adding, “We have what we need for our growing congregation.”
“In order to do the changes that the city requires, we have to have on-site parking,” Creech said. “We will need adjacent parking for 25 parking spots. It’s a condition of us updating and getting the youth house so that it can be occupied and used.”
Creech said the lot won’t be “a bulldoze job,” and encouraged people to look at images on the church’s website that show what the site will look like.
“We tried to be very upfront with neighbors and the community,” he said. “We can’t do anything yet because the neighbors have appealed the city’s decision to allow this.”
The issue had been scheduled to go before the board of adjustment next week, but is now postponed until April, Kirkman said. From the city’s perspective, their goal is to make sure the plans meet the requirements for the property to be used in a safe manner, he said.
Neighbors like Mahoney and Fisher are hoping that, with the help of a lawyer and community support on their side, they’ll win their appeal. Neighbors are open to a compromise with the church, Mahoney said, but the way things have unfolded, there’s a lack of trust.
“They haven’t kept their promises in the past,” he said. “They haven’t communicated with us at all and they certainly aren’t a good neighbor.”
That’s not always how Fisher has felt; he seems disappointed in his former church.
“The youth house was not a real problem for must of us, and you know we live right next door to it,” Fisher said. “Unfortunately they used it in violation of city code for a number of years. What seems odd to us all is they own the two houses at the back of their parking lot. [Westminster] could easily convert one to the youth house.”