Hearing probes policies towards church sitings

A City Council hearing on how churches go about converting houses zoned for residential use into houses of prayer was held on Aug. 30, and illustrated what some residents say is a growing problem in Dorchester.

"This country was founded on the freedom to practice [any] faith without any encumbrance from anyone, especially the government," said Councillor Maureen Feeney, who called the hearing. "But it does come down to the rights of the people who are living in the area, at least in District 3."

As detailed in the last issue of the Reporter, a few churches settling in residential areas in Dorchester have nettled neighbors with noise, traffic, and other issues [see related parsonage story on page 1] and a number of residents are beginning with respond with opposition to zoning changes, contacting elected officials and other tactics. Pictured right: Bibleway Christian Center, hopes to move into 121-129 Hamilton Street, but faces community opposition.

"It seems to me we need some kind of parameters," is how Feeney framed the question to Susan Rice from the Inspectional Services Department and Matthew Englander from the Assessing department.

"Churches are allowed in nearly every zoning district," said Rice. But, she added, they must prove they can provide the necessary parking for their flock.

According to Rice, if there are seats in the church in question, the formula is .25 parking spots for every 2 seats. Without seats, there is another formula that involves the floor to area ratio of the property. If the church fails to meet the parking requirement when applying to change the buildings occupancy to church use, ISD will deny the change of occupancy. Then the church's only option is to either appeal at the Zoning Board of Appeal or move on.

"Most of them don't appeal," said Rice. "They look for another location."

A ZBA hearing requires notification of the abutters and the neighborhood, who can then choose to oppose the change. Bibleway Christian Center, which is trying to move into 121-129 Hamilton Street, is currently at this stage and faces community opposition.

Building codes also require any church to change its designation from a residence to a place of assembly, and that entails installing special lighting and egress doors to serve as fire exits. Once a church passes the ISD and fire department inspections, they can begin services.

A pastor who planned to convert a home at 487 Ashmont St. into a church didn't make it over this hurdle when inspectors found that the church had exceeded its building permits in several ways, including the installation of a whirlpool-style baptismal pool in the middle of what had been a first-floor living room.

Many new churches begin thinking about their tax status after receiving their first property tax bills, said Englander. A laundry list of documents is needed to earn a property tax exemption: the deed, proof of the church's 501c3 tax status and its articles of organization to name a few. The Assessing Department's board of review then votes to approve or deny the application.

Davida Andelman, an activist from the Bowdoin Geneva area, asked permission to open up the churches in homes hearing to a discussion of churches in general.

"I believe we have reached our saturation point," said Andelman. "We need to have other kinds of commercial offerings to make our neighborhood business district more viable. We need a financial institution, bakery, coffee shop and a few different types of restaurants to complement what we now have. I would be hard pressed to say we need more churches coming into our district."

Andelman read off a list of eight different churches in her immediate neighborhood, and said letting the Bibleway Christian Center become the ninth would be too much.

"Too much of any one thing is not healthy," said Andelman. "Surely, there must be a way to craft a policy, ordinance or regulation so that each neighborhood does not have to be inundated by a particular need which has already been met."