Zoning hearing sees church response (March 18, 2013)
Proposed zoning changes to the county's ordinance governing places of worship were discussed during a public hearing held Tuesday night with several members of the religious community present to voice their concerns over the new ordinance.
Planning and Zoning Director Marshall Walker held the meeting to give citizens an opportunity to ask questions about the new zoning regulations, which he said are designed to protect homeowners and churches alike.
Walker explained that places of worship have been previously permitted by right in most of the county's zoning districts and existing churches will be grandfathered in under the proposed ordinance. The proposed changes, which are ultimately approved or denied by the county commission, will allow places of worship in virtually every district except neighborhood/commercial districts, which was one bone of contention for some the church leaders present to voice their opposition at both hearings. Walker said the changes are necessary due to the emergence of churches holding assembly in non-traditional settings such as office complexes, warehouses and even homes.
"The ordinance is a legal instrument, and that is where this is coming from," Walker said of the ordinance, which was approved by the Planning and Zoning Commission during its meeting last Thursday. Marshall said his office will consider comments and suggestions made by the public during the two public hearing and any further changes to the ordinance will be posted on the county's website prior to going before the Board of Commissioners for a public hearing next Tuesday at 9am. The commissioners will vote to approve, deny or defer the ordinance during their regular meeting on April 9.
As with the first hearing held last week, Walker's explanation was met with opposition from area ministers who feel the ordinance is punishing and unjust. The first person to speak out against the changes was Helen Hollingsworth, a minister who has recently relocated to Rockdale County
"I think it is a great infringement on the religious community," Hollingsworth said of the proposed zoning changes. "Every law is not just. I would hope we can somehow rally together and fight against this law. "One of the things that is on my mind is the colorization of Conyers. I think a lot of white people are not happy with the fact that Conyers is becoming more and more ethnically diverse, and the typical churches that will be meeting in homes are people of color. It's just another form of racism."
In response, Walker said the changes are designed to put every place of assembly on equal ground by addressing safety aspects related to places where large groups of people gather. He said that can be done by requiring every church to register with the county, which will be followed by a property inspection by the fire marshal and building inspector to ensure the proposed church site is suitable for a large gathering.
"We as churches have to understand we have to live by the law too," Shady Grove Baptist Church Pastor J. Phillip Baker said following Walker's comments. "If we want to draw people to Christ we have to be good neighbors. Let's stop injecting that every time we deal with stuff we have to inject race into it. We have all got to follow the same law that is set up whether we like it or not. This is the opportunity to change things, a lot of it will be to our favor. I understand that we all have to follow laws because laws keep our society civil."
Many of the approximately 30 people in attendance Tuesday night said they would like the wording of the ordinance to be revised. Several also said they would like for places of worship to have their own category instead of being lumped with places of assembly in the ordinance.
"Something must be done, and that is the crux of this meeting tonight," Springfield Baptist Minister Eric Lee said to the crowd. "It could be cleaned up and more precise, but if we (the citizens) don't offer something in return, the county will think we just don't like it (the proposed ordinance changes). Part of the tension is it is such adversarial language, it is antagonistic. The notion of penalizing a church in some criminal fashion almost defines us as a nuisance. The language is a part of how we got here today."
Walker said the final version of the proposed zoning changes as they will be presented to the Board of Commissioners is expected to be completed by Friday but comments and questions can be addressed to his office at (770)278-7100 and firstname.lastname@example.org
Another hearing will be held 9 a.m., on March 26, at 901 Main Street, prior to the Board of Commissioners regularly scheduled meeting. However, the proposed ordinance will not be up for a vote by the Board of Commissioners until April 9.
The ordinance can be viewed at www.rockdalecounty.org/main.cfm?id=4776 or rockdalecounty.org under the Planning and Development Department tab.