Naked City

Calling Chairman Chiz

The Hyde Park Baptist Church is certainly aware of the advantages of having Friends in High Places. No, not Heaven -- the Texas Legislature. The church, embroiled in an ongoing controversy over its plans for a new parking garage, prevailed on Pampa Republican Warren Chisum to sponsor a bill tailor-made on the church's behalf. House Bill 3548, which passed quickly out of the Land and Resource Management Committee Monday, would require that municipalities apply only the "least restrictive site development applying to the least restrictive zoning district" to any church-owned property -- including parking facilities. (A similar bill concerning public and private school property, which Chisum described as "a little different way to do the same thing," was left pending in committee.)

If the bill is enacted, the Hyde Park congregation would apparently be able to proceed with its plans to construct the garage (or indeed any sort of facility at all) -- despite the opposition of the neighborhood and rejection by the Austin City Council, and whatever the outcome of the church's current federal lawsuit against the city.

Chisum was frank about the bill's very particular intentions. "There will be testimony today that this is aimed at the Hyde Park Baptist Church and their desire to build a parking garage," he began. "Indeed it is. … It is virtually aimed at Austin and this thing, but it is a statewide problem." Chisum insisted that many growing Texas churches find themselves restricted by zoning laws -- but he apparently didn't find it odd that the metropolitan church couldn't find an Austin legislator to carry its holy water.

Richard Naylor testified in support of the bill, identifying himself only as somebody who is "somewhat familiar" with the problems in Austin -- but somehow failing to mention, even on his witness card, that he is chairman of the HPBC trustees. Naylor defended the bill as needed to prevent what the church considers too-restrictive residential zoning, with height and impervious cover restrictions unrealistic for a growing congregation (Naylor did not respond to a request for comment). Susan Moffat, speaking for the Alliance to Save Hyde Park (full disclosure: Moffat is married to Chronicle publisher Nick Barbaro), called the bill "a potential nightmare for any homeowner in this state," because it would allow "special privileges" to certain property owners, with the potential to do "irreparable harm to communities across the state."

Scott Houston of the Texas Municipal League pointed out that state and federal laws already protect churches against any "substantial burden" on religious practice, and argued that reasonable zoning restrictions on commercial-style structures are necessary to protect public safety and neighborhood welfare.

But the committee was apparently persuaded by Chisum, who says he often attends HPBC when in Austin, and that the neighborhood opposition just "doesn't like what they agreed to 10 years ago." Chisum added that in his view, current parishioner parking in nearby streets without sidewalks is also "a public safety issue."

Niyanta Spelman, co-president of the Hyde Park Neighborhood Association, told the Chronicle the neighborhood, while it remains willing to work with the church, opposes the bill and will look for allies elsewhere at the Capitol. "I think it's appalling that because the church wants this parking garage," Spelman said, "it is willing to threaten the ability of cities all over Texas to control their own land use."

John Hrncir, the city's government relations officer, said that the city did not testify against the bill in committee because the matter is in litigation, but that the neighborhood representatives and TML made the crucial arguments. "This is a very bad bill," said Hrncir, "which would allow downtown-intensity zoning for any church organization -- however that is defined. It would have considerable impact in Austin, where there are some 900 churches." Hrncir said the city has made the local delegation aware of its opposition, but added that "Chisum is a powerful, effective committee chairman. I would not underestimate his ability to pass the bill. Members are reluctant to go against churches."

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