Zoning changes affecting places of worship are on their way to approval by the county, angering several local church leaders who feel the changes are too harsh for many small churches and new churches in Rockdale.
The Planning and Zoning Commission recommended approval of the changes regarding places of assembly, including church, civic, social and cultural gathering places, during a public hearing attended by representatives of several area churches Thursday night.
Church representatives were not in favor of the changes. County officials said the ordinances are designed to ensure safety measures for large gatherings and limit negative effects on nearby property.
“There are expectations when you buy a home in a single-family neighborhood that you aren’t buying next to a church or a retail store, you are buying in a neighborhood,” Planning and Zoning director Marshall Walker said during the meeting. “The ordinance is there to provide an avenue for places of worship, but also to protect existing neighborhoods.”
But his words were followed with opposition from several church leaders who had sought legal advice and were told the ordinance is detrimental to religious organizations in the community. Two people signed up to give public comments - Pastor Charmaine Moss of Providence Church International, which holds services in the old Pike Nursery on Salem Road, and resident Josie Dean, founder of the Rockdale County Think Tank.
“Many of us have looked at this ordinance and we were told it is not good for churches,” said Pastor Moss. “It limits the use, especially for small churches, as to how we can use our churches and the outreach we do. This is not a good ordinance for churches.”
According to Walker, places of worship have been previously permitted by right in the majority of the county’s zoning districts and existing churches will be grandfathered in under the proposed ordinance.
The proposed changes, which will be ultimately approved or denied by the county commissioners, will allow places of worship in virtually every district except neighborhood/commercial districts, which was the bone of contention for the church leaders who voiced their opposition Thursday.
Walker said the changes are necessary due to the emergence of churches holding assembly in a non-traditional settings such as office complexes, warehouses and even homes.
“We are finding more and more of these every day and it is a safety issue,” Walker said. “I don’t want Rockdale County to be known for a tragedy; therefore, you have to have regulations, not just for places of worship but for every structure in this county.”
After a 3-1 vote to recommend the zoning change, board member Chuck Russell said that while some fine-tuning may still be applied to the ordinance, he felt it was time to move forward with the changes. Board member Evelyn Cooksey was the sole member to vote against recommending the changes for approval by the county.
The next hearing will be Tuesday, March 19 from 6 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. in the Rockdale County Assembly Hall, 901 North Main St., Conyers.
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 a later date.
The ordinance can be viewed at www.rockdalecounty.org/main.cfm?id=4776 or rockdalecounty.org under the Planning and Development Department tab.
You can direct written comments on the matter for the official record to firstname.lastname@example.org or the Department of Planning & Development, P.O. Box 289, Conyers, GA, 30012. For more information, call the Department of Planning and Development at 770-278-7100.