Monday, March 05, 2012

New church could be forced out of crash zone: Ellsworth Air Force Base (KRCA), Rapid City, South Dakota

A small Box Elder church may be forced to find a new home after it moved into an airplane crash zone.

Lower Lights Community Church is leasing space at 208 Frontage Road, which is located immediately southeast of the Ellsworth Air Force Base runway, resulting in high noise levels and crash potential. That high risk means the city has a say in what tenants move into the building, according to Mike McMahon, Box Elder’s planning coordinator.

But, that decision has left the future of the church in limbo, according to Rev. William F. Griffiths Sr. the pastor of the 27-member congregation that has been in the location for almost seven months. Griffiths, a city councilman and a candidate for mayor, believed the city’s approval was certain and the matter only procedural. Otherwise, the church would have waited to sign a one-year lease with the landlord. Located North of Interstate 90, the church is neighbors to Cimarron Casino, Hair Force salon and Emmanuel Baptist Church.

The matter is now before the Planning and Zoning Commission, which makes a recommendation to the city council on whether to grant the building’s owner an exemption to rules that guide development in crash zones. The council has the final say on letting the church stay in the high-risk location.

About seven months ago, the Southern Baptist church started as a seven-person prayer group in a Box Elder home. After gaining members, the growing congregation began subleasing the vacant auto sales shop from Sentinel Federal Credit Union for $300 a month. The credit union no longer needed the space after the shop moved out and it removed its ATM, Griffiths said. The church signed a one-year lease in February since the building fits the tiny congregation’s budget.

“We’ve tried to find some other places in town, they’re just too expensive,” Griffiths said. “We’re just a small entity.”

The church now pays $550 a month plus utilities. Other places they looked at ranged from $1,500 to $1,800, which would put a burden on the congregation, Griffiths said.

If the city decides the church must leave the space immediately or even a year from now, Griffiths said they will run into the same affordable rent issue.

“If we can’t find a place, we’d have to shut the church down,” Griffiths said. “They’re not looking at what this little church has done so far in the community.”

In its short existence, the church hosted a Veterans Day memorial service, donated candy and pizza during Christmas time to needy families and raised 286 units of food for a local food drive, Griffiths said. They are also a meeting place for a local Girl Scout troop.

But the little church now finds itself caught up in a complicated land-use issue. The city is balancing the church’s right to practice, the landowner’s right to lease and the city’s duty to keep its residents safe, McMahon said. The main issue the city faces is that it pledged to adhere to the recommendations made by the base to keep development out of these dangerous areas, McMahon said. Churches and other large gathering spots are prohibited in the high-risk spaces under the recommendations, he said.

“This is a very nuanced and complex situation and the city is doing its best to be reasonable and protect everybody,” McMahon said.

Griffiths argued that if other businesses and another church can operate in the crash zone, then the Lower Lights Community Church should be allowed to as well. In the almost seven months at the location, Griffiths has never heard nor seen a plane fly over the church during its Wednesday night and Sunday morning services.

“All I’m asking is that if everyone else gets to be here, then why can’t we?” Griffiths said.

The existing businesses are allowed to operate in the high-risk space after they were grandfathered in when the city adopted its current land-use rules in these high-risk zones. The building the church is leasing was also grandfathered in, but the use of the building was not, McMahon said.

McMahon proposed a quick fix to the Planning and Zoning Commission during the Feb. 27 meeting when the existing exemption for the credit union was up for annual review. McMahon recommended the commission transfer the exemption to the landowner, Steve Wynia, as required by a new ordinance and add a clause that said no more than 50 people may occupy the space at one time. His proposal would allow the church to stay in its location for at least a year. During the annual review of the exemption, the city could revisit the issue. On Wednesday, Wynia said he did not want to comment on the issue.

The Planning and Zoning Commission continued the matter until its March 12 meeting and requested the Wynia and the church board attend the meeting to discuss risk factors associated with the crash zone.

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