Wonderful Op-Ed from Councilman

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.

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