An industrial park has become the battleground for a house of God.
Members of Vine Wesleyan Church in Lancaster want to turn a manufacturing warehouse into a church sanctuary despite zoning laws that prohibit a church from locating on commercial-industrial land.
This case is unusual because churches are typically free to locate just about anywhere. Both churches and schools receive preferential treatment under municipal zoning laws because they are considered community assets.
The Chapel at CrossPoint, for instance, opened its $19 million mega-church two years ago in theCrossPoint Business Park in northern Amherst.
But Village of Lancaster zoning codes are more stringent. Village officials contend that while the church deserves a permanent place to call home, that place shouldn't interfere with zoning laws specifically written to protect a town's commercial and industrial interests.
"I'll be honest," Mayor William Cansdale said at this week's board meeting. "My first inclination is to deny this request to protect the integrity of the industrial park."
The Rev. Christopher Baldwin has sued the village for the right to build the church.
"I think vital churches and vital religious life in the lives of people are an important aspect of the community," Baldwin said. "As Lancaster economically keeps growing, and residentially keeps growing, so does faith."
He said his church of roughly 200 members is prepared to invest between $300,000 and $400,000 to renovate the Sherex Industries building at 1400 Commerce Parkway. Sherex, maker of automotive plugs and rivet nuts, is moving to an Empire Zone location.
Baldwin started Vine Wesleyan Church in March 2005. Since then, the church has grown to include a host of youth, fellowship and adult ministry programs addressing difficult life issues such as grief, divorce and infertility, he said.
Congregants meet for services every Sunday in Court Street Elementary School.
But the temporary location hurts the church's image. It makes potential congregants wary of the church's credibility, particularly among those raised Catholic who are used to attending service in churches that have been around for generations, Baldwin said.
John Mikoley, a Pyramid real estate broker, told the board he has spent more than two years searching for an adequate site for the church and has looked at 41 properties.
Very few meet the church's need for a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot facility, he said. And most of those that do are either too old and expensive to renovate, government-owned or otherwise unavailable, or located in the village's commercial-industrial zone.
Village officials argue that the church clearly does not meet the village's zoning requirements and should not be given an exception because it would open the door to other non-commercial interests in an area key to the village's long-term economic health.
Stanley J. Keysa, consultant to the Lancaster Community Development Corp., reminded board members that the industrial zone was initially created in the late 1970s from bankrupt railroad lands.
Strict zoning laws were adopted to protect the viability of the industrial park as a place that encourages businesses to open and create jobs and taxable real estate.
"It's zoned solely for the kinds of endeavors that create jobs," Village Attorney Arthur A. Herdzik said.
Keysa pointed to the master plan for the villages of Lancaster and Depew and the Town of Lancaster, which repeatedly refers to the protection of the industrial park for strict commercial purposes.
Sean Hopkins, the lawyer representing the church, said it is legally inappropriate to cite any economic measure as a reason for denying a church's building request.
But Jeffrey Stribing, the village's community development director, said millions of dollars in taxpayer money were spent to create and expand the business park. The Village Board has an obligation to protect that public investment, he said.
The church has already failed to receive building approval from the village's Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Commission. State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski ruled June 8 that the decision to grant a special-use permit lies with the Village Board.
After a lengthy public hearing in which the board heard heartfelt testimonies from church members, as well as opposing opinions from business and village representatives, trustees said they were impressed by the many thoughtful comments and the courtesy of the speakers.
"This is one of the best public hearings I've ever heard in these chambers," said Cansdale, adding later, "I hope we make the right decision."
Board members delayed their decision on the permit until their Aug. 13 meeting. Regardless of the decision, Cansdale said the village is committed to helping the church find a place to call home.