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Following a Tuesday public hearing with 19 speakers supporting a Newport News church’s plan to expand onto a piece of James City County industrial land, the county’s Board of Supervisors voted to change a set of ordinances that will prevent the church from building without rezoning the property.
The board voted 3-2 in favor of the changes, with Supervisors Mary Jones (Berkeley) and Jim Kennedy (Stonehouse) opposed.
In May, a set of proposed changes to several of the county’s areas began making their way through the county’s legislative process. The biggest set of proposed changes was to the county’s industrial district, where about 40 uses were to be removed and about 20 uses to be added following what county staff said was an inadvertent errors and omissions made in January 2012.
The changes were proposed to focus on the industrial uses and remove anything that would be incompatible, such commercial uses that would attract public visitors.
The Peninsula Pentecostals, a Newport News church in the process of expanding, signed a contract to purchase property in the county’s industrial land on Pocahontas Trail in the Grove area in March, approached the county with its plans in April, and was later informed churches were by-right uses in the industrial zone. Because churches and daycares were listed as by-right uses, the church would not have to seek rezoning or a special use permit to build.
County staff said the church’s application prompted their realization churches and daycares had been included as by-right uses in industrial districts in error, so they began making changes to the zoning ordinance. Those changes went before the board at its 7 p.m. meeting Tuesday, where the meeting room was packed with citizens who opposed the changes so the church could build on the property off Pocahontas Trail.
Twenty speakers came forward to voice their opinions on the changes, 19 of whom opposed the proposal. The one speaker who supported the changes, Ed Oyer, was concerned about the original intention of the industrial district — to allow industrial businesses a place to call home — and the conditions of Pocahontas Trail.
“No more development on Route 60 of any kind until that road is fixed,” Oyer said.
The other 19 speakers each had a story about how the church had touched them or helped them grow; all asked the board to allow the church to continue with its plan to build.
One woman told the board if they did not allow the church in the county’s industrial area, she would go home and cry. Having the church close to her home in Grove was something she said would greatly help her family.
“I believe that a place of worship is, by far, the highest and best use of any piece of land,” said John McSharry, the church’s administrator.
As the public hearing ended, board members took turns expressing their opinions.
Jones said she did not approve of the manner in which the county handled the mistakes once county staff realized some uses were allowed in the industrial district that should not have been; she said the county was not putting citizens first.
“My interest is to work with the church. They have already gotten into a contract…,” Jones said. She continued to say churches are the highest and best use of land because they are an investment in people and the community.
Jones said she could support changing the ordinance without removing churches from the list of uses for the industrial district. The Planning Commission voted 4-2 in July to recommend the board approve the changes but keep churches as an allowed use.
Kennedy echoed Jones’ opinion on how the county handled communicating with the church, and added he would be supportive of rezoning the acreage the church is contracted to purchase, saying it’s been for sale for 30 years and the county isn’t attracting many industrial businesses.
“We’re not exactly a young community and we don’t have a lot of workforce here,” Kennedy said.
Standing on the other side of the issue, John McGlennon (Roberts), Jim Icenhour (Jamestown) and Andy Bradshaw (Powhatan) viewed the issue as land-use only.
Bradshaw, who is an attorney, quoted the saying, “Hard cases make bad law.” He said sometimes when someone has a result they’re trying to reach, some fundamental rules are changed to fit that one goal, which then compromises the functionality of the law in the future.
“If we were to change the [industrial] zone so that churches continue as a by-right use, that’s really bad law,” he said.
Bradshaw said the question was not regarding the one tract of land the church had been eyeing, but instead the entire industrial district. If churches were allowed on one piece of industrial land by the zoning ordinance, they would be allowed on all of it.
The board voted 3-2 to approve changes to the zoning ordinance as proposed. All five board members said they would be supportive of at least hearing a case for rezoning. McGlennon said he was not sure he would support a rezoning application, but would remain open. The church can apply for the property to be rezoned at any time.