Inver Grove Heights council denies zoning amendment for church relocation

The Inver Grove Heights City Council found itself faced with a question Aug. 26: Is a church in a community shopping area the right fit to fill a building that has sat vacant for more than a decade?

The council unanimously decided it is not the right fit, and at its next meeting will formally deny an amendment that would have allowed for Gateway Christian Church to move into the vacant building in the Arbor Pointe shopping center.

 

A requested amendment

Allan Hunting, city planner, said at the Aug. 26 council meeting the church was requesting to amend the Arbor Pointe Planned Unit Development ordinance to allow for churches in the community shopping center district.    

The property the church would be looking to take over is the former Advanced Auto Parts building at Buchanan Trail and Concord Boulevard.

Hunting said the roughly 7,000-square-foot building would be converted to include a worship auditorium, classrooms and offices. There would have also been a few minor changes to the parking lot. 

“[City] staff is concerned with the change of use going from a retail to a different type of use,” Hunting said, pointing out there has been recent activity in the area, such as a Dollar Tree opening and a new brewery that have rejuvenated the site.  

Through council and community surveys, Hunting said there has always been a push for more retail and restaurants in the area. Changing the planned unit development takes away opportunities for those types of development, while also taking away employment opportunities. 

Hunting said allowing the church to take over the building also means a potential loss of tax revenue as churches are tax-exempt if they own their building.

Currently, because the church rents the building it’s in, Mayor George Tourville said the church does pay taxes through its rent.

City staff recommended the council not change the ordinance to allow the church at the site.

 

Filling a vacant building

Richard Farrell, senior pastor at Gateway Christian Church, said it was formed in his living room in 2013. Farrell said the congregation wanted to be in the south metro area and was drawn to Inver Grove Heights. 

“We not only want to be a place where the community can come and worship, but also a place where not just their spiritual needs, but their physical needs can be met too,” Farrell said.

He said the church has been looking for a space, and while he and others are aware Arbor Pointe isn’t zoned for places of worship, there aren’t many areas in the city zoned for churches. 

Knowing how long the building has sat empty, Farrell said they knew it would be a perfect fit for them.

William Melin, who represented the owner of the property at the meeting, said it’s been vacant for 12 years and has been a hardship for its owner.

 

The city Planning Commission voted unanimously to grant the church a conditional use permit to use the space, Melin noted.

 

Not the right fit

There was a resident who spoke during the public hearing on the matter who raised concerns to the council about the church creating more traffic and the potential for a loss of tax base.

“We’re starting to see a resurgence of retail coming in there,” she said. “All of that suggests that we very well could get more retail there, more taxpayers.”

Community Development Director Heather Rand said the city has very limited opportunities for commercial districts, adding that for some time the council has worked hard to make Arbor Pointe what it is. 

As it is a business area, having a church there could limit liquor licenses for future businesses. The new brewery would be exempt from any limitations, said City Administrator Joe Lynch, because its license was approved prior to the church’s application coming in. 

Farrell said his church would be willing to pay city property taxes like other churches in commercial areas in other cities.

Council member Tom Bartholomew said while he isn’t against churches, he finds the application submitted by Gateway Christian Church to be incompatible with the area for many reasons.

“If we put a church in place here, then we do have an ordinance requirement that prohibits liquor licenses within that area, and that is going to prohibit the growth for that retail area,” Bartholomew said.

A resolution denying the amendment to the planned unit development, with the council’s reason for doing so, will be back before the council Sept. 9 for a final vote.

 

–Hannah Burlingame can be reached at 651-784-7824 or hburlingame@lillienews.com.

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