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Lancaster denies permit to church

After much soul searching, Lancaster village leaders have spoken: A taxpayer-funded industrial park is the wrong place for a house of worship.

The Board of Trustees called a special meeting Monday and voted unanimously to deny The Vine Wesleyan Church a special-use permit that would allow congregants to make their first real home in an industrial warehouse along Commerce Parkway.

"It really is just a difficult decision," said Mayor William Cansdale. "I know the work you do in the community, Dr. Baldwin."

Board trustees said they are obligated to protect the taxpayer investment in Lancaster Village Industrial Park against noncommercial interests. They also cited safety concerns with nearby companies housing hazardous materials.

Unlike private commercial-industrial parks, the village's Commerce Parkway area was built roughly 30 years ago with local, state and federal tax dollars. That money was given with the provision that the park would limit future development to designated business interests, village leaders said.

"Although the Wesleyan church made a heartfelt plea to have this permit granted, there was too much taxpayer money invested in the industrial park for us to use it other than [how] it was intended," Cansdale said.

Pastor Christopher Baldwin and the church's lawyer, Sean Hopkins, said they would discuss whether to continue The Vine's suit against the village in court.

"I'm disappointed," Baldwin said. "I guess we'll get together and see where we go from here."

The Vine Wesleyan Church started up in March 2005 as an outgrowth of Eastern Hills Wesleyan Church in Clarence. Congregants currently meet for services every Sunday at Court Street Elementary School and participate in various ministry programs.

Baldwin said his growing church of roughly 200 members was prepared to invest between $300,000 and $400,000 to renovate the Sherex Industries building at 1400 Commerce Parkway. But The Vine failed to receive approval from the village's Zoning Board of Appeals and Planning Commission.

The church sued the village for rights to the building, leading State Supreme Court Justice Joseph G. Makowski to recommend the church seek a special-use permit from the Village Board.

Hopkins maintains it is legally inappropriate to cite any economic measure as a reason for denying the church's request. The Vine's "net positive impact" on the community should be the sole legal standard, he said.

"It would be different if we were a private party proposing to build a car wash," he said.

But board members said it is impossible to ignore the taxpayer mandate to limit Commerce Parkway to commercial and industrial purposes, not to mention liability issues that could burden surrounding businesses if the church is permitted to locate there.

Cansdale said the village will continue to work with church members to help them find an alternate location. Baldwin said he's happy to meet, but worries no other location outside the industrial park will be adequate.

The church seeks a 10,000- to 15,000-square-foot facility, which is hard to find. Most such buildings are either too old and expensive to renovate, government owned or otherwise unavailable.

"I've tried so hard not to make it an us-versus-them kind of thing," he said. "That's the moment we lose as a church, when we see them as the enemy. What we've tried to do is separate the people from the issue. I do believe that both we and the village officials want to see Lancaster become a better place."

e-mail: stan@buffnews.com

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