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Grace Episcopal Church sues City of Lockport over rejection of variance for community center

LOCKPORT – Grace Episcopal Church has taken the city to court over the rejection of a zoning variance needed to clear the way for a community center program to help the underprivileged.

The lawsuit, filed March 24 in State Supreme Court, attempts to overturn the unanimous rejection of the variance by the Zoning Board of Appeals on Feb. 23. The suit just beat a 30-day deadline to challenge the ruling.

The board, after hearing objections both from neighborhood residents and from members of the congregation who aren’t onboard with the project, turned down the variance to convert more than 12,200 square feet of the church complex, located on Genesee Street near Cottage Street, into the Lockport Family Center.

Modeled on Family and Children’s Service in Niagara Falls, the church project would have required a variance because the church is located in an area zoned for multifamily dwellings.

The Rev. Vicki Zust, spokeswoman for the Episcopal Diocese of Western New York, said Grace Church is a dwindling congregation located in a deteriorating part of the city. Based on census data, the church asserted in its filing that Lockport has more than 6,000 residents, or about 30 percent of its population, living at or near the poverty level.

“There’s empty space and projects that could be using that space to help the community,” Zust said. “The intention is to create kind of a one-stop shop for families to obtain services that aren’t available in the immediate area. It’s still a little bit in flux what services those will be, depending on which agencies become part of the final project.”

While leaving intact the portion of the church used for worship, the Grace Church plan sought to convert little-used space in the building into a center for human services agencies to collaboratively assist those in need. Also, a small addition was to be built to connect the church to Arnold House, a small building that the church owns and sometimes uses for events, which also would give the church a handicapped-accessible entrance.

According to court papers, the church has raised $750,000 for the project from the Grigg-Lewis Foundation, the John R. Oishei Foundation, the Margaret L. Wendt Foundation and the Community Foundation for Greater Buffalo.

Human services agencies are nothing new to the area, as the Salvation Army, with its soup kitchen and winter homeless shelter, is located a block from Grace Church.

City Building Inspector Jason C. Dool said that one of the concerns raised at the Zoning Board meeting was a lack of parking. The church has no parking lot. There used to be a driveway from Genesee Street to a city parking lot at Walnut Street, but the owner of three houses on the street, Gary G. Halliwell of North Tonawanda, has blocked the 12-foot-wide easement with a fence. Dool said he’s looking into how and why that happened.

Zust said, “I don’t think parking will be a huge issue. We’re not talking about huge numbers of people at any one time. Certainly no more than a Sunday morning church service would create parking issues.”

According to the Zoning Board minutes, board member Allan W. Jack said he was against the project because “there are other offices for rent left and right in the city.”

The Zoning Board motion against the project declared that it would alter the character of the neighborhood. The lawsuit, written by attorney Corey A. Auerbach of the Barclay Damon law firm, responded by contending, “The use of Grace Church by human service organizations does not alter the essential character of the neighborhood; it defines it.”

The lawsuit contends that the Zoning Board was using an outdated set of variance standards that were changed by a 1994 state law. David E. Blackley, the deputy corporation counsel who attended the Feb. 23 meeting of the Zoning Board, declined to comment on the lawsuit.