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From today’s Post and Courier:
Zoning variance for turning church into a residence would set a dangerous precedent
The City of Charleston’s Board of Zoning Appeals recently granted a variance to allow St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, a beautiful pre-Civil War Greek revival style church in the heart of downtown at 43 Wentworth St., to be converted into three residences and two businesses.
It is a precedent-setting issue that could ultimately change the social fabric of our city. I am actively working with the mayor and other City Council members to resolve it.
Although I appreciate the hard work the committee does as well as the scrutiny under which they work, many of us on council do not agree with this decision. It is my firm belief that this variance sets a damaging precedent.
Allowing the unnecessary conversion of historic churches to higher dollar uses for businesses and multi-family housing may ultimately result in pricing new churches out of downtown Charleston. Variances like this could become the easy default for aging or dwindling congregations. Then Charleston would lose downtown churches one by one over time, instead of having younger congregations come in to replace the declining ones, as has been the case for nearly two centuries. Sometimes a variance may be appropriate, but not in this case where a beautiful church without any major structural problems is filled with eager worshipers.
The prospective buyer, interested in converting the church, applied for and received a zoning variance. The city’s ordinance allows a variance to be granted only in cases where the current zoning creates an unnecessary hardship which effectively prohibits or unreasonably restricts the utilization of the property.
Certainly, the current zoning is not creating a hardship that prevents utilization of the property since an active young Presbyterian congregation has been worshiping there for over five years and has attempted to purchase the church. No good reason is apparent why this 173-year-old sanctuary, with its beautiful stained glass windows, balconies, historic pipe organ and cemetery cannot continue to be a Gospel presence for generations to come.
It is my firm belief that City Council must obey the spirit and the letter of the variance law. Maximizing profit from a church sale to build a large suburban church, or increasing a property’s value for a potential investor does not rise to the level of an “unnecessary hardship” for purposes of granting a variance.
This zoning variance would increase the value of the property; the higher price would make it more difficult to continue its current and historical use and even more difficult to attract a new congregation as our historic churches have done numerous times in the past.
I did not agree with the explanation of the “unnecessary hardship” by the Board of Zoning Appeals, either. The board reasoned that the church buildings are larger than most homes and are more like other businesses. The board indicated that “as for office use, that exists now on the ground floor on the Parish house.”
Many other church buildings downtown are larger than residences, and they have pastor’s offices in them, too. One can easily extrapolate the damaging precedent that would be set here, if this variance is allowed to stand. That is why I am bringing it before City Council so we can consider vetoing it.
This variance would ultimately result in new congregations being priced out of the market downtown. Over time, our historic churches would fall, one after another into business and condominium use. It is not in the Holy City’s best interest to allow its historic churches to be rezoned when feasible alternatives exist to maintain them in their current and historical uses and keep them as centers of worship and community activity.
It would be a shame to see our historic churches privatized, looking more like the fake facades of a movie set, instead of vibrant community centers benefitting Charlestonians for generations to come.
During the last two centuries, Charleston’s churches, like others around our nation, have passed from congregation to congregation, often changing denominations along the way. When congregations dwindled, church buildings were given or sold at modest prices to new congregations.
Numerous examples exist, including St. Andrew’s Lutheran Church, which began as a Methodist church. As a child, I attended Westminster Presbyterian Church on Rutledge Avenue with my grandmother. As their congregation dwindled in size, they merged with a West Ashley congregation, but only after selling the church to a Baptist congregation. Grandmother’s old church is now the Jerusalem Baptist Church, an active church which, under the leadership of Pastor Salley, has over 14 groups that actively minister to its congregation as well as its community.
The disagreement over the interpretation of this variance presents us with a “win-win” opportunity. The first “win” is to show that government can indeed be responsive to the needs of the community. The second “win” is one that allows the Holy Spirit Lutheran congregation, the owners of the church at 43 Wentworth, to receive fair market value for their property by passing the church along with the same generous spirit in which it was received, so that the rich heritage of worship and service to the community can be continued.
Seldom do we have such opportunities; they should not be wasted.
Blake Hallman is a Charleston city councilman. He received the 2006 Preservationist of the Year award from the Civil War Preservation Trust for his work in protecting Morris Island.
From today’s Post and Courier:
Fans of old church put faith in Holy City
Those hoping to preserve 43 Wentworth St. as a church are throwing a Hail Mary pass to Charleston City Council.
The Wentworth Street Methodist Protestant Church was built on this site in 1834 and rebuilt after the 1838 fire in a Greek Revival style. It suffered from shelling during the Civil War and became a Lutheran congregation after it merged with Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church, which had been on Morris Street. A Sunday school building was built next door in 1894. The church’s interior was redecorated extensively in 1908 and again in the late 1930s.
—From Jonathon Poston’s “The Buildings of Charleston”
And they just might complete it.
Council members could vote Tuesday on overturning a Board of Zoning Appeals decision that allowed the church to be converted into a residence.
City Councilman Blake Hallman said Friday he is concerned that the zoning board’s decision sets a bad precedent that, if left unchallenged, could erode the number of historic churches still in use in the Holy City.
“I’ve talked to enough (City Council colleagues) to expect that this variance will not stand,” he added.
The temple-style church building was built around 1840 as a Methodist church, but it merged with a Lutheran congregation in 1866.
St. Andrews Lutheran Church worshipped in the building until 2006, when it merged with another Lutheran congregation to form the new Holy Spirit Lutheran Church in West Ashley. That church then leased its Wentworth property to Redeemer Presbyterian Church, which still uses the property, said the Rev. Craig Bailey of Redeemer.
But the Wentworth property also has been for sale for years, and businesswoman Nancy Snowden has plans to buy the 6,445-square-foot sanctuary, neighboring 12,441-square-foot fellowship hall and a 15-space parking lot.
Last month, she received a variance from the city’s Board of Zoning Appeals to turn the sanctuary into a home and to convert the fellowship building into two housing units and office space.
That board’s decisions are subject to review by City Council, which normally doesn’t reconsider them but apparently will in this case.
Hallman said he will argue the church property doesn’t have any unusual hardship or extraordinary conditions that would merit a variance.
“It’s an active, viable property,” he said. “I think that it (the variance) sets a very onerous precedent for future churches.”
Since the board’s decision, a growing number of people have questioned what is going on — and whether there’s some way this building can remain as a church. These voices include those currently worshipping there.
Bailey and Nancy Vinson, a Redeemer member, said their congregation started in the Terrace Theatre on James Island in 1999 and welcomed the opportunity to move downtown and be closer to the homeless shelter, public schools and other opportunities for ministry.
Redeemer has paid the cost of utilities and half the insurance bill to lease the property, and it always understood it might have to move one day.
But Bailey said when Redeemer realized the church’s price was dropping, it began wondering if it could stay. He said Redeemer has made its own offer for the property —an offer it believed to be equal to Snowden’s, except that the church asked for more time to arrange financing if its contract was accepted. “All we know is they rejected our offer without comment,” he said.
Snowden previously declined to verify the sales price, and neither she nor officials with Holy Spirit Lutheran Church returned messages left Friday.
Even if the Lutheran church did not want to accept Redeemer’s offer, Vinson wondered whether other congregations might be interested in buying it at a comparable price. “We wouldn’t bat an eye or open our mouths if they were selling it to another church,” she added.
While some Lowcountry churches have been converted to homes or public spaces, the idea can trigger a lot of emotion.
A proposal to convert the New Tabernacle Fourth Baptist Church at Elizabeth and Charlotte streets into a theater was turned down a few years ago after neighbors and others objected.
Still, many congregations in historic church buildings downtown are grappling with the twin challenges of dwindling congregations and rising maintenance costs.
Robert Gurley of the Preservation Society of Charleston said that group is mostly concerned about the variance allowing an office use in the fellowship building next door.
Gurley said the society would like to see a church remain a church, “but what we don’t want to see happen is churches falling down.”
Hallman said if the 43 Wentworth building were vacant, then there would be a more compelling case to allow a new use on the site.
He noted churches often go through periods of prosperity and decline, and the city should do what it can to help them survive during their lowest points.
Reach Robert Behre at 937-5771.
July 13, 2012
Buying a church
As an 11th generation Charlestonian I am appalled at the ease of buying a historic downtown church and turning it into a private residence.
Not an abandoned, dilapidated church, but a thriving, productive church that benefits the city in remarkable ways.
I refuse to be silent, as my relatives were when the Charleston Hotel was demolished in 1960, and the Orphan House Chapel was torn down in the mid ’50s to make a parking lot.
Where is the Lutheran Synod? Where is Mayor Joe Riley?
My ancestors are spinning in their graves.
Deanne Clark Highway 17 North Mount Pleasant
July 12, 2012
As a former College of Charleston student, walking was a way of life. I walked to classes, restaurants, shops, and grocery stores.
Without a car several semesters, I was at the mercy of roommates and friends to transport me to church in the suburbs on Sundays.
A decade ago the churches in the suburbs were the only ones actively reaching out to college students. How wonderful to have had a young, vibrant congregation like Redeemer Presbyterian downtown within a short walk of the college.
Redeemer takes care of college students, offering “adoptive” families for students who want a listening ear, a home-cooked meal, or a comfortable place to do laundry.
Redeemer is also the church home for several campus-ministry staff, bringing many students through its doors on Sundays and during the week.
College students are an important part of our city, and churches that minister to our students should be encouraged.
If our city leaders don’t preserve and protect growing, worshiping downtown congregations, then college students without cars might determine it’s far easier to forego their Sunday habit.
Gray Morgan Gemstone Boulevard Hanahan
Great legal editorial in the paper today by a Jewish attorney documenting how the variance granting business and multifamily residential uses of our church is UNLAWFUL.
‘Use-variance’ shouldn’t apply in this case
Post and Courier, Wednesday, July 11, 2012
The Board of Zoning Appeals granted a “use-variance” for the historic church building at 43 Wentworth Street at the request of a prospective purchaser.
It allows the church to be converted into multiple residential and office uses. Many have voiced opposition to this decision, motivating me to comment on how it violates longstanding legal precedent.
The law allows a variance (basically, an exception) from zoning regulations if they cause an “unnecessary hardship.”
More than half a century ago, the South Carolina Supreme Court ruled that granting a variance is an “exceptional power which should be sparingly exercised,” and the court has since adopted rules limiting variances.
One such rule disqualifies a property owner if he purchased the property after the complained-of zoning was in effect.
This rule makes sense. One cannot claim unnecessary hardship if the claimed hardship is self-created and could have been avoided.
Forty-three Wentworth Street’s use-variance violates this rule. The current owner acquired the property in 2009. Used as a church for generations, the property’s zoning prohibited more intensive residential and office uses.
It makes no difference that a prospective buyer is the applicant since the zoning exists before her purchase as well.
The unnecessary hardship is self-created and can be avoided.
The owner does not have to sell to someone intending to convert the church to several residences and businesses.
Nothing in the board’s decision states that this is the only marketable use for the property.
In fact, the church worshiping there now may be interested in purchasing and carrying on church activities for years to come.
There are several other reasons, in my view, why the board’s decision was incorrect, but space is limited.
Fortunately, the City Council has the power to reverse the board’s decision on July 17.
Ross Appel Ashley Avenue Charleston
July 6, 2012
I am appalled by the Board of Zoning Appeals decision to permit the sale of St. Andrews Lutheran Church at 143 Went-worth St.
The beautiful altar with the painting of the risen Christ above, the mahogany pews, the small graveyard with tombs dating back 150 years, including the graves of the daughters of Admiral de Grasse, this is to be a residence? I urge the BZA to rescind its vote.
Kathryn K. Matthew St. Michaels Alley Charleston
Save the church July 1, 2012
I am not a parishioner ofSt. AndrewsLutheranChurch, formerly at at43 Wentworth St. I am not a parishioner of Redeemer Presbyterian, now worshiping there. However, as a member of several historic organizations, I think preserving the integrity of our culture and heritage is of the utmost importance. It is what makesCharlestonappealing to locals and visitors.
It concerns me that an individual can purchase a historic church like this, which is being used for its original intent as a house of worship, and convert it into a home. Destroying the interiors of any churches for remodeling into private residences is really appalling.
It is fortunate that years ago when theHuguenotChurchwas inactive, no one had the desire to “save” the building by turning it into a private residence. It is now a thriving church, and a piece of history has been preserved for future generations.
Cheryl Coleman Bampfield Drive Mount Pleasant
Real meaning of being the ‘Holy City’
The Rev. Dr. Moore concluded with comments about the negotiating process and impending sale and said: “Even when they want it for ostensibly good purposes, it does not justify the loss of a beautiful church building filled with eager worshipers who – given time and patience – might well have raised the funds needed to ensure its vibrancy for generations to come.” Again, the situation forces us to focus upon what the city’s zoning board shall consider a priority. Only engaged citizens can direct the path of progress and make certain it honors the real meaning of being the Holy City.
Whether we stay or move, we hate to see this wonderful pre-civil war church–which provides not only a Gospel presence, but meets many other needs within the community–be privatized and no longer a public house of worship. After our first offer was declined, the private buyer said they were signing a contract within the week, so made a second offer to match their purchase price of $1.6 million, with a 90-120 day period to allow us to secure funding, some of which would have to come from outside our immediate congregation. The Lutherans declined to accept our offer and our request to meet with them to discuss how we might make something work. We still have a three day right of first refusal, just before the property sells.
So, unless something changes, if we are to purchase and preserve this church, we will need to quickly raise funds to pay for it. We know that because of the younger age of our members, some of the funding must come from outside of our immediate congregation. If you are interested in working on a team to help raise funds, please contact Beth Plante.
We are confident in the Lord’s provision for our congregation and are content to move or stay, whatever He wills.
Please keep this issue in your prayers.