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This Baptist church strives to get along with neighborhood

Monday, August 31, 2009 by Kimberly Reeves

As homage to history and the skill of attorney Richard Suttle – or lingering remembrance over the bitter division of a community – it’s practically impossible to have a church expansion zoning case before Planning Commission without someone, and everyone, eventually bringing up Hyde Park Baptist Church.

If Rev. George Tuthill said “intimate and person worship experience” once, he said it at least four times when it came time for the gentle-mannered pastor to talk about his church’s plans to reconfigure and expand the space for its school, gymnasium, sanctuary and, perhaps the most exciting factor for local business, proposed structured parking garage that it will for lease to others in the area.

“We’re delighted to be part of that community. We’ve been here 118 years, which is a long time, and over that period of time, we’ve ministered to thousands, if not tens of thousands, of people from this neighborhood,” Tuthill said. “We’re delighted to continue to do that. We’re not striving to be a mega-church. We’re desirous of a ministry that is intimate and personal that allows people the privilege to come and worship in a relaxed atmosphere while not being too small.”

Tuthill all but said to the Planning Commission, in his polite but respectful Baptist way, “We’re Baptist. We’re just not Hyde Park Baptist.” And when Chair Dave Sullivan spoke of not wanting another divisive battle over zoning as he had seen with two other contentious zoning cases – he was referring to Hyde Park Baptist and Good Shepherd Episcopal Church – Tuthill assured him, “Absolutely not.”

In fact, attorney Henry Gilmore, who represented the church, made a point of telling the Planning Commission he had questioned the church rather closely on its long-term intentions toward the neighborhood. And, yes, he was comfortable with the church’s intentions as being as direct Tuthill’s plain-spoken promises.

Asked directly, Tuthill was not adverse to discussing with his church leadership a potential agreement that the church agree not to purchase any additional adjacent single-family lots, although the vote last night did not come down to that.

What it did come down to was a division of the lot. Congress Avenue Baptist, which was South Austin Baptist Church at one time, straddles an alley. No other property on Nickerson had that benefit. So the ultimate issue was the zoning on the eastern half of the property versus the zoning on the western half of the property.

The western half of the property faces Congress Avenue. It was almost impossible to argue that the property should be rezoned from SF-3 to CS. To be more specific, the staff recommendation was CS-CO-NCCD-NP, an acknowledgement that the property exists both within a neighborhood plan area and a neighborhood conservation combining district.

When the subject of height came up, and the suggestion was made the property should simply be conform to the parameters of the Fairview Park NCCD, Jerry Rusthoven noted the property did. The Fairview Park NCCD excluded the church. The CO would refer to the exclusion of all those businesses no one wanted.

The eastern half of the property, the portion adjacent to the neighborhood, was the problem. Neighbors, especially along Nickerson Street, were less included to support the proposed GO zoning category on the land. It broke down into two factions: The neighborhood contact team, led by Jean Mather, was willing to give the church NO, or neighborhood zoning.

The South River City Citizens, led by Sarah Campbell, was only willing to go as far as SF-3, saying the church could do what it needed to under the category.

In an ironic twist, in the area of impervious cover, SF-3 would have allowed more latitude than the proposed NO zoning. While NO zoning would allow 35 percent impervious cover, the SF-3 zoning would allow up to 40 percent. Impervious cover, however, was not the key decision in the church’s decision to pursue GO zoning.

As an attempt at compromise – given the fact the church has yet to land on a site plan – Gilmore agreed to a restrictive covenant on the eastern half of the property, which would allow a zoning rollback to SF-3 if the church failed to use the property. This did not appeal to the neighborhood on two fronts: Neighbors were convinced it would take expensive lengthy legal action by the neighborhood group to pull the trigger on the zoning rollback, and it would be impossible to do anything once structures for the church’s were built on the property.

Commissioner Mandy Dealey attempted a compromise: creating a pocket for the new sanctuary, since it was the one building that required additional entitlements. Given a lack of a site plan, however, such a maneuver would have required a site plan and specific filed notes to subdivide the parcel in a way that the ultimate parcel with the sanctuary on it could be zoned differently from the rest.

Whatever the church build would have to meet compatibility standards, Gilmore said. There was no way around that. What Gilmore agreed to do was agree to a restrictive covenant on the eastern half of the property, which would allow a zoning rollback to SF-3 if the church failed to continue its current use.

Staff recommendation on the eastern half of the property was the less intensive, but still too-much-for-the-neighbors GO-CO-NCCD-NP. That would provide less intense density along Nickerson Street, plus the list of exclusions, and a requirement to meeting the existing compatibility standards, and setbacks, next to homes.

After some discussion and a comparison of entitlements under each zoning category, a motion to approve NO zoning for the east tract failed and the commission passed staff recommendation, 6-1, with new Kathryn Tovo as the lone opponent on the vote. Commissioner Gerardo Castillo was absent, and Danette Chimenti recused herself from the vote.

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