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Develop Church Property While Being Good Neighbors

Neighbors have a lot of say in church property development. Let’s talk about how to remain friendly with your neighbors as you expand your facilities.

Neighbors may not own your land, but they have a lot of say and they can have a lot of pull with the planning department. Having good relationships with your neighbors is key if you’re going to: rezone your property, get a conditional use permit, get a plan development or anything that requires a public hearing in front of the planning department or the city council.

A good thing to do is call a neighborhood meeting.  We try to do these pretty early on in the process of developing your church building. This is when we invite all the neighbors from the community for a brief meeting at the church. Legally, we have to invite everyone within 300 feet of the property line.  It is a good idea to go out 500 feet. This is a casual meeting where you serve beverages and dessert.  It gives a chance for the neighbors to come inside of you building to see what it is like and get a feeling for who you are. The idea behind the neighborhood meeting is to find out who will support our project and who might be against it. Let’s face it, folks. If you’re going to go out and grow your church, the enemy is not going to want you to do that and will try to disrupt things as much as possible.

An example is my friend Chip Ingram. When Chip was at Santa Cruz Bible Church, he asked me to develop an 85,000-square foot family life building right on their campus in Santa Cruz, California. Santa Cruz is a difficult place to develop. We did the neighborhood meeting, and everything was going fine. Chip talked a little bit about the history of the church and their dreams for the future. Then I got up and drew some bubble diagrams of where this 85,000-square foot family life center might go and commented on what it might look like.  Things were going pretty well. I asked if anyone had concerns as we prepared to move forward with the project. One lady was concerned about the fence because part of the fence had fallen down between the church’s property and hers. Another was concerned about carbon monoxide buildup in their yard because of the parking lot being expanded. One of the bigger issues was traffic. The church is  back in a residential community, so bringing lots of cars back in and out was a concern. Finally one guy named Hal stood up said, “My name’s Hal, and I live right on the other side of that fence, and, I’ve had it with this church. I don’t like the lights out here. I don’t like the noise. I’m retired. I’ve got nothing better to do: I’m going to make it my mission in life to make sure that this project never happens. I’m going to be out by my  truck, so if you’re with me, come on out and let’s put together a plan.” So, he got up and walked out of the meeting. “Yes,” I thought, “Mission accomplished.  We found exactly what the enemy is going to try to do to mess up our project.  We know his name and where he lives.”

 I started on the design work, drew up the facility, did a campus master site plan.

Several weeks later we invited all the neighbors to come back so we could address their concerns. I put up the site plan, and showed how the fence would be fixed, including different design ideas for the fence. We had done a study on carbon monoxide buildup in the parking lot would be dispersed by the air coming in off the ocean. It was not going to be an issue. For traffic, we had several buses that we could park off-site at a shopping center, a county park and ride and at a high school. By having church members ride buses to the church, we could eliminate some of the traffic on Frederick Street.

Then, Hal stood up and pointed at my drawing and asked, “What’s that,” pointing at a little area. It was a bus maintenance and storage facility that just happened to be right up against his fence. Hal seemed to be pretty concerned about it. He was asking how many buses there would be, and I told him we could have up to seven, because we need to decrease the traffic. “Well, what kind of buses are those?” he asked and I told him, “They are 65 passenger, Bluebird diesels.” And you could just see that he was getting more and more upset about the whole bus maintenance and storage yard.

I did that is so Hal would have something to do, not because we needed a bus maintenance and storage facility. We spent the next month working with Hal to pull the bus maintenance and storage yard 20 feet away from the fence, and then maybe even a bit more. We ended up 45 feet away from the fence. We had to put in boxed redwood trees – big 48-inch boxes with pretty much fully-grown redwood trees between our bus maintenance yard and his fence. And we went down from seven busses to six busses to four buses.

We went to the planning commission and did the normal routine. At a public hearing, people get to stand up and speak for or against your project. Hal went running up there complaining about the bus maintenance yard. I showed the planning commission how we had started out right up against the fence, with seven buses; that we pulled it away 20 feet and now to 45 feet away. I told them about the redwood trees and everything. But most of all I told them, “We want to be good neighbors. You know, we have the buses in order to lighten up traffic on Frederick Street. If we have to park the buses somewhere else, I don’t know where we’ll put them. We want to be good neighbors, so if we have to do away with the bus maintenance yard in order to satisfy Mr. Hal, then I guess that’s what we have to do.”

The city planning commission talked, and they said, “No, we think you’ve done enough. Let’s vote on this.” We got a seven to nothing vote in favor of our 85,000-square foot family life center; which, by the way, never even came up in any of the discussions. All of the discussion was on that bus maintenance and storage yard which, frankly, we didn’t even need.

If you have Google Earth,  pull up Santa Cruz Bible Church, Frederick Street, Santa Cruz, California. You’ll see our bus maintenance yard, because 10 years later it turned out we did need a bus maintenance yard. You have to know who your neighbors are, what their concerns are, address the reasonable ones, and if somebody wants to go to war, bring it on.  There is always a way to be a good neighbor and to keep them on your side.

Are you building by neighbors? Call me at 719-439-3019.

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