Doug Rowe, on a mission to move his alternative-style Christian church from its current location in Whittier to a vacant building on Main Street in downtown, asked town leaders to change current zoning laws. The space he wanted to rent was a former restaurant and theater and is on the ground level, a space where churches are prohibited by law in the downtown district.
The logic is that the prime retail space should be reserved for businesses. At their meeting last week, board members unanimously supported that train of thought and denied Rowe’s request.
“We have a special area in our town,” said Board Member Lynda Sossamon. “And we’d like to keep it as it was set to be, mainly a walking district for specialized retail, businesses, offices, etcetera.”
The town board followed the recommendation of the town planning board and code enforcement officer John Jeleniewski, who defended the ordinance as written. Jeleniewski explained to the board that although churches are prohibited in certain spaces on ground level in the downtown district, known as the B1 district, nearly 90 percent of the downtown building space is still open to them.
“The B1 district is the heart of Sylva’s commercial activity,” Jeleniewski said. “And currently there are adequate accommodations for use of churches.”
Before the vote even came before the town board, the space Rowe wanted for his church was leased to another renter who plans to put a restaurant there. Yet Rowe continued on his quest to get Sylva to change its ordinance, motivated by the possibility of another ground-level space becoming available downtown but also because he wanted to see his cause to the end.
“I decided to just go all the way with it, so here I am now,” he said, standing before the board at its meeting last week. “Churches I just don’t think should be looked upon as the bad guy in any situation.”
Rowe had plans for an open-door church that would also put on concerts and other events. The congregation is small now but he hoped to grow membership.
Since his request for the board to change the law, and his intention to relocate his church, became public, it attracted media attention from various print, radio and television outlets. It also attracted the disapproval of many of the local merchants.
The state statute that prohibits alcohol from being served 50 feet from a church became a concern for one of Rowe’s would-be-neighbors who has a café and would like to serve alcohol in the future. But many merchants opposed it on principle and for economic reasons.
Sheryl Rudd, co-owner of Heinzelmännchen Brewery in downtown Sylva, spoke against an ordinance change on behalf of the town’s downtown merchants association. She said the businesses opposing the request aren’t anti-church but believe the limited street-level space should be used appropriately and in harmony with the downtown character.
“We like what this church will bring and we hope it finds a place,” Rudd said. “We just feel in this downtown district to put a church on the Main Street level is not an appropriate location.”