The Austin Chronicle

Presbyterians, Neighborhood Compromise

By Kimberly Reeves, December 22, 2006, News

The two sides in the Redeemer Presbyterian Church zoning case each had a vision for the church's East Austin property, but it took a last-minute save by Council Member Mike Martinez last week to seal a deal on a zoning compromise.

Redeemer Presbyterian's congregation is relocating from the soon-to-be-defunct center city location of Concordia University to an 11-acre portion of the Featherlite Tract off Manor Road. Looking at the property, the congregation saw a large church complex with a 60-foot sanctuary for resplendent musical programs. The Rosewood neighborhood, on the other hand, saw an impending threat to a proposed transit-oriented development gateway to the MLK commuter rail station.

Rosewood was willing to give on the sanctuary height if the church was willing to give on the zoning of the gateway land. But the church, represented by attorney Richard Suttle and Elder Barry McBee, argued that commercial zoning would create tax liability, a liability the church was not willing to bear. As a religious institution, the church is exempt from property taxes. Any threat to that exemption was unacceptable to the church, McBee told the City Council.

City staff proposed a "no build" zone in the plat notes, but neighbors considered that one step short of what was really needed: a covenant to force the church to use the southern edge of the property for shared parking with the MLK rail station, and not for use as a day-care center, bookstore, or other nonreligious church-related use. No compromise appeared to be in the offing as council approached a vote, and the church threatened to pull its application and immediately build a 40-foot sanctuary.

"If you are unable to, for whatever reason, make a decision this evening, then we will proceed immediately to build our sanctuary at 40 feet to take care of all of the steps that are necessary to accomplish that purpose," McBee said. "We will do that with a great deal of sadness, because we will have lost the opportunity, we believe, to provide for the city of Austin and all of Central Texas a very unique cultural resource and also with sadness because we will lose the various commitments and agreements we have been able to make in discussions with the neighborhood over the last many months."

Council would have been sad, too, because limiting the church to 40 feet would have also limited the transit-oriented development next door to 40 feet. Sensing the impasse – and a split council vote on second and third reading of the zoning change – Martinez called a recess and put together additional closed-door negotiations between church and neighbors.

When the two sides returned, they had negotiated a different way around the "religious assembly" concern. Both sides agreed that "religious assembly" uses – including a private school, day-care center, or any type of private community recreational use – would be a conditional use on the northern or southern extremes of the property. As such, any construction would require a conditional-use hearing before the Planning Commission.

The church got its sanctuary and zoning. The neighborhood got the guarantee on the land it requested. And the IRS, it appears, got nothing out of the deal.

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