A hot potato for councilPosted Thursday, January 7, 2010, at 1:26 PM
The recommendation by the city's planning and zoning commission to deny a conditional use permit for an expansion of the Catholic Church complex in downtown Mountain Home is going to put the city council on the hot seat.
The church no longer owns Good Counsel Hall, which at one time had been the site of many of its major functions, as well as other community activities. In fact, before the church sold it to the hospital (which wants the land for future expansion), the building itself had suffered from some issues that had severely limited its use.
So the local parish embarked on a plan to expand near the church in town. It bought the land. The businesses there were moved out, and the parish moved forward with getting a conditional use permit to build a complex near the church itself.
All of which came to a crashing halt Monday night when P&Z, on a split vote, said no.
The issue has to do with parking. City ordinances establish certain standards for the number of parking spaces for new construction, based on the size of the project, and the church's proposal was well below the city standards. Ridiculously below those standards. So P&Z said no.
Unfortunately, the land acquired by the church, combined with its current structural plans, really doesn't give it much of an ability to expand the parking area to any significant degree.
It had hoped to get a waiver of the city standards, and if it had even been reasonably close, P&Z might have recommended the plan.
But P&Z doesn't have the final say. The matter will eventually wind up in the lap of the city council. It will be interesting to see how much political pressure is put on the council to reverse the P&Z vote -- and how the council will respond to that pressure.
On the one hand, the parish can argue that its members have always been able to find parking for its weekend services at the church, on the street and in nearby business parking lots. Their current proposal would actually add to the ability to handle the parking needs of its parishoners.
On the other hand, most of those needs occur on the weekends when many businesses are closed, but a replacement for Good Counsel Hall could expand significantly the number of days in which there is a large parking demand. And of course, there's the fact that the proposal doesn't come close to meeting the city standards for parking.
Those standards could be waived by the council, but it has stuck to its guns on parking standards for other proposals that came before it, so doing so would be difficult. Not impossible, but difficult. It would take a pretty creative argument to work around it.
At the same time, the council is, by its very nature, a political animal, and the Catholic community in this area is large and, in the rare cases that it wants to be, powerful.
It's been a tough few months for the council when it comes to churches, having turned down only a few months ago a request by the Nazarene Church for an extension of city services to its new church site just outside of town. No politician likes to mess with a church, especially two that have the respect in the community that these two have earned over the years, and which both have large, voting, congregations.
The inevitable appeal of the P&Z decision is going to be very difficult for the council to handle. The council either needs to either find some way to work a compromise, or stick to its guns on its standards, or cave in to the significant political pressure the councilmembers are going to face.
But then, that's why they pay them the big bucks.
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