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December 13, 2007

Grace Baptist Church asks for more time to prepare request

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First of a two-part series

Grace Baptist Church is going through growing pains, and needs a new home to accommodate its rapidly expanding congregation. Five people were in attendance when the Church began services in July 2000. Now, there are usually well over a hundred people on any given Sunday when Pastor Johnny Hartless takes to the pulpit at the Church’s current location in Woodbrook Shopping Center.

“The space we’re currently renting is a strip mall style facility,” Hartless said. “And our Sunday school space is inadequate, and our worship space is certainly not ideal.”

20071211grace2 Proposed location of the new Grace Baptist Church

In December 2005, church officials purchased a 5 acre parcel of land off of Watts Passage Road and began planning for a new 21,400 square foot facility that would hold up to 280 parishioners at a time. There will also be a parking lot with 93 spaces. However, to do so, they’ll need to get a special use permit because the area is zoned Rural Areas. 

The Rural Areas section of the Comprehensive Plan will allow for “community meeting places” and “other cultural institutions at traditional rural scales.” According to the staff report, similarly-sized churches have been approved in the rural areas before. In fact, the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 limits the power of counties to regulate where churches can be built.

But yet, the churches impact on the surrounding neighborhood has to be considered by the County. Will it bring in too much traffic? Will there be enough ground water? Is there a large enough drainage area for septic fields? A report on the property from groundwater expert Nick Evans says that a well drilled for the church would not interfere with the water supply of surrounding residents, and that there’s enough area for a septic system. There will also be a 20-foot wooded buffer designed to shield the church from neighbors.

Though in the rural area of the County, Watts Passage Road is undergoing significant amounts of suburbanization. In 2003, VDOT recorded a traffic count of 390 average daily trips. Three years later, that jumped up to 680 trips per day. But, in its review of the property, VDOT officials said the church’s peak traffic time would not coincide with commuter rush hours.

Staff recommended approval of the project with seven conditions, including the requirement for a lighting plan, as well as an assessment from the Virginia Department of Health on the quality of the well and septic system.

But, neighbors around the property are not convinced. Georgia Ann Roberts told the Commission that her well often runs dry, and she’s concerned that will happen more frequently if the church is built.  Neighbor William Cummings said when he tried to buy the property several years ago, he was told by his Realtor that a well would be impossible to drill. But Cummings was mostly concerned about the size of the proposed church.

“Something that big, we’re going to see from every window of our house,” he said. He added that he chose to live in the rural areas for privacy and seclusion. Cummings said he is also concerned about the possibility of future expansion of the church. One other neighbor spoke out against the size of the proposed church.

But the engineer hired by Grace Baptist to draw up the conceptual site plan said he was confident in Nick Evans’ assessment that a well could be drilled to provide an adequate yield.

Commissioner Cal Morris (Rivanna), however, was not. He said that while churches deserve special consideration, he could not vote for approval of the special use permit until they had more information about the availability of water.  That requirement was not one of the seven conditions.

Commissioner Bill Edgerton (Jack Jouett) said he felt the lot size was too small for the proposed facility, given the rapidly growing congregation. “Looking at the photographs of the site, I think it’s going to be next to impossible to build what’s being show on this plan without taking out every tree,” he said. 

Commissioner Pete Craddock (Scottsville) told the Commission he thought the Church should be allowed to build to the size it wants now, rather than to build a small church and come back for an expansion in the future.

Pastor Hartless said no construction would begin until a test well had been drilled, and said the church would be willing to reduce the size of the facility to accommodate the Commission’s concerns. To accomplish that, he requested a deferral to allow for a smaller design with a larger buffer, as well as to conduct another assessment of water supply. The Commission voted to grant an indefinite deferral.

Cannon said he was concerned that there have been a lot of applications from growing churches that can’t afford to build in the growth areas of the County.  He praised the pastor for his success, but said that conflicts often arise when rural areas are used to accommodate church growth.

Commissioner Jon Cannon (Rio) “We’ve approved these churches, some of them quite large, as exceptions, but it seems to me that exceptions are becoming more the rule,” Cannon said. “We’re inviting a repeated pattern of churches needing room, to come to the rural areas, establish themselves, and to grow in the rural areas, attracting largely people out of the growth areas to attend.”

In the second of our two-part series, we’ll take a look at another application for a new church in the rural area. The First Church of the Nazarene received approval from the Board of Supervisors on December 12, 2007.

Sean Tubbs

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