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Almost two years after first approaching James City County with plans to build a church on land near Greenmount Industrial Park in Grove, Peninsula Pentecostals received a unanimous vote Tuesday from the county’s board of supervisors approving the project.
Peninsula Pentecostals applied to the board to rezone 40.3 acres at 8930, 8940 and 8950 Pocahontas Trail from industrial to mixed use to allow for a 130,000-square-foot church capable of seating up to 2,400 people, a daycare center capable of enrolling up to 150 children, a building for church-related activities and a future commercial area that would feature a gas station, a restaurant and up to 30,000 square feet of commercial development.
The supervisors were largely apologetic for the road the project has taken to reach the board. The congregation approached the county in 2013 about using the industrially zoned land for a new sanctuary. At the time, the county’s zoning ordinance allowed houses of worship to be built on industrial land.
Shortly after the church approached the county, the board of supervisors voted 3-2 to change the ordinance to remove houses of worship, citing county staff members who said houses of worship were erroneously added to the list of accepted uses for industrial land.
The two no votes were Jim Kennedy (Stonehouse) and Mary Jones (Berkeley), both of whom were apologetic to the congregation at Tuesday’s meeting.
“I was on the board through this entire ordeal,” Jones said. “I apologize to the Pentecostal community for the poor, poor process and poor treatment. To put in an application and then have the rules completely changed right out from under you I thought was appalling at the time and I still do.”
Kennedy said in 2013 he would vote in favor of a rezoning application were it to come before the board, and he followed through on that promise Tuesday.
“The church went about this the right way,” he said. “I think you have a lot to offer James City County.”
Supervisors Kevin Onizuk (Jamestown) said he was a candidate for the board and was sitting in the board room when the board voted 3-2 to change the ordinance in 2013.
“I was the candidate who at that point decided I had to win,” he said. “We had to right the ship and make sure that James City County will move forward doing the right thing for our citizens.”
Supervisor John McGlennon (Roberts) voted to change the ordinance in 2013, though he said then he would remain open to considering a rezoning application were it to be brought forward.
On Tuesday, he supported the proposal to build the church but expressed concern about the proposal to build the gas station because of its proximity to the Skiffes Creek Reservoir.
McGlennon asked Tim Trant of Kaufman & Canoles — the church’s representative — if the gas station was a make-or-break issue for the church.
“Given the financial toll this process has taken on the church, we need economic viability on the property,” Trant said. “We’re not prepared to compromise that position at this point.”
Congregants of the church packed the board’s meeting room in Building F at the James City County Government Center during Tuesday’s meeting. The wooden benches of the meeting room were largely filled by congregants, while others stood in a line along the back wall of the room and a few dozen others who could not fit in the board room sat in the lobby and watched the meeting on a wall-mounted TV.
They watched as several members of the church used the public hearing to talk about how the church has positively affected their lives and how it could bring positive changes to the county, with specific comments focused on how the church had saved marriages, helped those struggling with substance abuse issues, intervened in the lives of youth and brought fellowship to the lonely.
When the supervisors cast their unanimous vote approving the rezoning, the congregation burst into applause.
The congregation has been based in Newport News since it started in 1980. It has outgrown its current location and has been eyeing the land along Pocahontas Trail for about nine years, investing “hard-earned funds” in hopes of securing the site for its new sanctuary, according to Lead Pastor Jared Arango.
“I humbly say that if we find our home on this land, this congregation will be a valuable asset to this county and more specifically the Grove community,” Arango said during a public hearing for the rezoning application.
Arango said the church has expanded to more than 500 congregants and the church wants to become a part of James City County.
“We believe that healthy people make a healthy community, and we intend to continue serving by partnering or coming alongside with the institutions already in this district by providing our support and resources and making the light of hope a little brighter in our Grove community,” Arango said.
But a handful of county citizens opposed the project, citing the proximity of the proposed gas station to the Skiffes Creek Reservoir and the loss of industrial land and the tax revenue it could provide were the land to be developed for that use.
In June 2014, the U.S. Department of Justice began an investigation to determine if the county violated the church’s civil rights.
A spokesman for DOJ has not returned a request for comment, however Assistant County Administrator Adam Kinsman said in an email the DOJ has indicated the county will not hear back from the agency until the rezoning case has been resolved.