Not In Our Backyard! – The Church and Zoning

pinmapI’m writing this entry in my blog primarily as a resource to those who made read this later while moving through the church planting process. Unlike me, you may already be aware of some of these issues, but I was caught off-guard. I’m referring specifically to my naiveté regarding worship space for our church. I honestly thought that a church could gather for worship pretty much anywhere that they desired, provided that they were willing to pay to lease the location and certain fire/building codes were met. So I was quite surprised to find that there are areas within the city (many in fact), where “houses of worship” are not allowed under the city/county codes. And even in some of the areas where they are allowed there are other conditions that must be met (like minimum size of property) and additional applications that must be submitted and approved. So my advice to others beginning to search for space for their church plant: go and ask the city about this issue specifically and get a map before you begin looking.

I’m learning a lot about this issue, but I admittedly still know very little. I can tell you this: it’s quite complicated and the issue of churches and zoning is dealt with differently in different locations. Stanwood does not allow churches in most of the commercial areas in town. Our vision of having an office and small worship location in a community center with a cafe type atmosphere is looking more and more unlikely. The city explained it to me this way: if we want to lease a place that is being used primarily as something else (like a school/theater/etc.) then we are ok. But if we want to lease a space to be used on Sunday morning for worship and the rest of the week as an office then we fall under the “house of worship” classification and our choices are limited by the current zoning.

There is a federal law that was passed in 2000 often referred to by the acronym RLUIPA (Religous Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act) that prohibits cities from discriminating against religious organizations in their zoning. I did some research and a number of sources say that most cities are probably not in compliance with the law. However, there have also been differing circuit court rulings on the interpretation of the law. The heart of the problem is apparently not so much that cities are anti-church, but rather that they need tax revenue. When a church moves into a commercial or industrial space that city loses the potential tax revenue. When a church purchases a building the city loses the property tax revenue. I understand the dilemma. I also understand the some mega-churches have not been the most welcome neighbors and have not been in well-planned locations.

Whether or not a city is in compliance with the law is probably a matter of debate and would likely require significant legal work to resolve. For us, legal action and fighting is simply not the way forward. We desire to be the best church for the community and to work in partnership with the existing organizations and structures, not to be an adversary. However, it is very frustrating and I believe short-sighted on the part of the city. A healthy church provides so much benefit to the community and neighborhood that go well beyond the issue to taxes and revenue. We dream of being a church that supports work with the homeless, provides tutoring, supports the local schools, and through the power of Christ changes the very lives of families for the better. We want to see crime reduced, marriages healed, children educated, hungry fed, seniors provided with community, etc. – all in the name of Christ. So my hope is that over time we can also be a voice to challenge some of the existing zoning so that more creative models of “church” can be allowed to flourish in the community as it continues to grow.

In the meantime, we are once again back to the drawing board. I’m convinced that we will eventually find the right fit for us, it just may not happen as easily or as quickly as we hoped. And this entire issue convinces me, once again, that the missional community model is an effective way to live as the church in our changing culture. None of these land use issues effect what happens in our home, with 10 – 20 people gathered together for a meal, and strategizing about how to “be the church” in the neighborhood where we live. And nothing is preventing us from having another 10 – 20 groups all doing the same thing!

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