Editorial: Acting on faith

Call it a matter of good faith gone bad.

As expected, an Ill-advised zoning action James City's supervisors took nearly a year ago is coming back to haunt the county.

As Gazette reporter Cortney Langley wrote last week, the U.S. Department of Justice is investigating James City's zoning and land use practices in the wake of a vote that denied a Newport News church the ability to expand in Grove. There's little question that the county re-wrote its ordinance to exclude the church's plans, even though the use was allowed under the existing ordinance.

In short, James City made a mistake, several officials admitted as much, yet elected leaders still refused to play by the established rules.

The 40-acre parcel on which Peninsula Pentecostal Church wanted to build was across the road from Green Mount Industrial Park. It's nearest neighbor? Another church.

Plans for the church were three years in the making, and only after consulting with James City planning officials in April 2013 did the congregation enter into a contract to buy the land. Meanwhile, James City discovered it had left a gap in its ordinances that would allow the church to build on land meant for industry, and quietly worked to close the loophole.

Two months later Tim Trant, the attorney for the church, confronted the Planning Commission. He said no one from the county contacted him about proposed changes.

"I have never been... more outraged at, and with a client more aggrieved by, the actions of a municipal staff than I am tonight. What happened relative to these ordinance changes as they impact and relate to the interactions my client has had with the staff are nothing short of nefarious and unconscionable."

The county argued that the changes weren't meant to thwart the church, instead aimed a correcting an error made a year earlier. If timing is everything, the county's timing couldn't have been worse.

The Planning Commission did the right thing a month after Trant's complaint, voting to recommend allowing churches as a matter of right on land zoned for industrial use.

As Langley reported, commission member Robin Bledsoe said the mistakes in the ordinance should have been apparent when church representatives spoke with planners. Michael Maddocks, also on the Planning Commission, said he was concerned with the county's lack of communication with the church. "It's wrong," he said at the meeting.

Problem is, the county saw that land as a potential revenue producer. Churches, by ordinance, are exempt from local taxes.

Former county administrator Bob Middaugh, along with the county's Office of Economic Development, lobbied to keep the land for industrial use though, as supervisor Jim Kennedy would later point out, "I haven't exactly seen a rush on industrial property in the last 30 years."

In voting against the changes last August, Kennedy added, "I understand that mistakes can be made, we've all made some. But I think we have to make the church whole. We have to do no harm."

The Department of Justice investigation centers on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, which prohibits land use regulation that, among other things, "treats a religious assembly on less than equal terms with nonreligious assemblies or institutions."

For now, the investigation is exploratory. The DOJ has asked for copies of James City's zoning ordinances present and past going back a decade. Beyond that, it wants every document and correspondence dealing with the Peninsula Pentecostal case. It also wants the videos of meetings, which will show that the supervisors voting for the changes likely knew understood they were committing a zoning version of a bait and switch.

The simple solution would've been to rezone the 40 acres bought by Peninsula Pentecostal to a use that allows the church to build there. While James City wouldn't collect tax revenues, it's likely church members would visit area restaurants, stores or gas stations while in the area. That's money coming in to James City, rather than money going out to defend a defenseless decision.