Feeney orders 'churches in homes' council hearing

A gutted home sits idly on Ashmont Street, potential crowds and parking problems worry neighbors on Hamilton Street, and tenants on Sanford Street were "terrorizing the neighborhood." All of these problems, according to City Council President Maureen Feeney's office, are related to churches based in homes or residential areas. Two of the churches in question were created in houses zoned residential.

To respond to the seemingly growing trend, Feeney ordered an August 30 hearing on the impact of churches based in homes. Representatives from the Assessing Department, the Boston Redevelopment Authority and the Inspectional Services Department will testify, as well as several Dorchester residents.

"We take religious freedom very seriously," said Feeney's spokesperson, Justin Holmes. "Many people seek to find a worship place for their own. But what we hear from the neighborhoods is that they have concerns about noise, parking, crowds, and problems with taxes."

In one instance cited by the hearing order, the Shawmut Avenue Church in the South End rented a parsonage usually occupied by its pastor at 28 Sanford St. to the Boston Housing Authority as Section 8 housing, according to a story in the Reporter.

According to Holmes, the tenants were "essentially terrorizing the neighborhood." Boston Police officers were also investigating a possible connection between 28 Sanford and the death of 41 year-old Michael Hansbury. Hansbury was found bleeding and unconscious outside of 7 Monson St. on June 5, an apparent victim of an assault. He passed away later that week.

Additionally, Shawmut Avenue Church was not paying taxes on the former parsonage at the time, said Holmes, raising questions about what uses of the home the church is allowed while enjoying tax exemption.

In another case, pastor David Millien of Eglise Baptiste H. Bon-Berger de Boston secured permits last year to convert a house at 487 Ashmont St. into a church, without consulting the neighbors first. After the work was discovered to exceed what the permits allowed, neighbors and Feeney's office pressured the city not to allow the work, and Millien eventually agreed not to continue. The house is now for sale, but the first floor has been gutted.

"He really did a number on the interior of the house," said Phil Carver, president of the Popes Hill Neighborhood Association. "He's marketing at a higher price to cover his costs. I know a couple of developers who looked at it. At the price he's asking, it's not feasible for them."

In Bowdoin-Geneva, a third church vs. neighbors dispute is bubbling over. Pastor Willie James is looking to move his Bibleway Christian Center into 121-129 Hamilton St., yet didn't consult with the community before he began work on the interior. The building is a former warehouse zoned light industrial, but it sits in the middle of a residential neighborhood.

"I asked him, 'Don't you think you should talk with the community?'" said Davida Andelman, a neighborhood activist. "He said 'Yeah, yeah.' Later, I saw them doing work in the building without a permit. I dropped a dime and ISD [Inspectional Services Department] came over and shut them down."

Andelman explained that with the Cape Verdean Seventh Day Adventist Church "within spitting distance," and several other churches nearby, many neighbors felt another would be too much.

Pastor James said he had support in the neighborhood.

"We got about 60 people to sign a petition," said James. "But the city refused every last one of them."

Karine Querido of the Mayor's Office of Neighborhood Services said all but one of the signatures were illegible, according to James, and the person whose name she said she could read didn't confirm the signature when asked. Querido did not immediately return a phone call to confirm James' account, but Jennifer Mehigan, spokesperson for the Mayor's office said that the consensus in the neighborhood is against Bibleway's move.

"All we're trying to do is bring jobs in there, 35 jobs into the community, and job training, youth programs, daycare, food and clothes" said James. "We go around every Tuesday talking to the neighborhood. They say they need it. They say they want the church."

"I know they do good work in the neighborhood," said Andelman. "If he had come and talked to people, he'd have heard that it's just a lot."

James attended one hearing at the Zoning Board of Appeals, where he was told to get proof that he had parking for the church and community support, according to Andelman and Holmes. He said he plans to keep reaching out to the neighborhood to get that support and he has brokered a deal to allow church goers to use the parking lot at Restaurante Cesaria on Bowdoin Street nearby.

Andelman and others plan to continue the debate in the Ianella Chamber at City Hall Thursday, Aug. 30 at 1 p.m.