The fourth public hearing on zoning changes for places of public assembly, which might affect small churches and start up churches, heard more support than in past hearings and several suggestions for changes. About 50 people attended the Tuesday morning hearing.
Planning and Zoning Director Marshall Walker outlined some of the changes, which would expand the areas that places of assembly would be allowed by right from six areas to 16 areas. It would not prohibit small groups, bible studies and fellowships, he said.
"What we're saying in the middle of a subdivision is not a place for a church.When you buy a home in a single family residential subdivision, you have a reasonable expectation that is going to be a single family home next to you. Not a Wal Mart, not a Quick Trip," said Walker.
The changes were made with safety and health precautions in mind, said Walker. Places of assembly that open up in areas not designed to accomodate large groups of people run into issues of sanitation, traffic, parking and congestion.
"If we cannot get an emergency vehicle down to the scene, that is unacceptable," said Walker.
Commissioner JaNice Van Ness said that the laws and procedures are in place for a reason. "When clergy are not following (the law) that's upsetting to me. We have 99 percent that have done an outstanding job. We're here today because of the 1 percent that are not following the law. It's a big tax on our resources, code enforcement, having to go out."
Commissioner Oz Nesbitt pointed out the ordinance changes would allow facilites
The ordinance change would treat all places of public assembly, whether they were churches or banquet halls, the same, according to Walker. The three acre requirement currently on churches would be lifted and instead the acreage would be in line with the requirement of whatever is the place of zoning.
During public comments, the Rev. Helen Hollingsworth of the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America offered a few suggestions to change the proposed ordinance.
Those suggestions included not grouping churches with places of assembly, defining house churches and the number of cars permitted. "No one is saying we want to congest a subdivision... But I am in favor of small groups meeting."
"I'm speaking up for people who want to start a church, particlularly people of color, for small churches as many as five or six people. We do think they have a right to meet," she said.
"I'm not making it a racial issue," she said. But, she added, "I am saying unequivocably, there are undertones of that."
Beverly Simmons of the Brentwood subdivision said she would be against the change because the 100 foot offset requirement would be removed which would allow a church or place of assembly on Ellington Road. Other than that, she said she was in favor of the other changes.
Sue Chappel spoke in favor of the ordinance. "It's been very thoughtful, it's been well covered, it still allows the rights of small groups to assemble."
"We as Americans love our freedoms and automatically bristle when anyone says they're going to limit it in any way," she said. But citizens do not have the right to anarchy and when one person's rights bump up against another person's well being, limits are put in place, she said
Pastor J. Deland Shorter of Double Springs Baptist spoke in support of the ordinance change, particularly removing the three acre requirement.
"I'm grateful this commission has taken the time with the planning and zoning board... I have a church that's 130 years old this May... Under old zoning, we could not do the remodeling. They gave us instructions on how to remodel. If this were a racial issue, planning and zoning would not have assisted us... I thank you for a well thought out ordinance."
The proposed ordinance will be up for a vote by the Board of Commissioners 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.