Church Considers Options

May 7, 2015

West University Baptist Church may have decided to end the controversy over a real estate swap with the city of West University Place by filing a preliminary application for a zoning variance to build a new youth center on its own property in the 3800 block of Amherst.

The church and the city have been involved in real estate negotiations for several months over a possible “land swap.”

The deal would have allowed the city to proceed with a long-range master plan for city facilities for a future “Municipal Block” that includes property on Amherst now owned by the church, and the church to build a new youth ministry building on Milton now owned by the city.

Two candidates for city council that are among the most vocal opponents of the church youth facility are Bob Kelly and Brennan Reilly.

A petition signed by 946 people, to force a public vote on $3 million bond proposal to finance the relocation of the city’s Public Works maintenance facility and the acquisition of additional real estate and other construction, apparently killed the real estate negotiations.

The proposed land deal was first made public in October, 2014, and ignited a political firestorm in usually quiet West U. Four opponents of the municipal block — including two former mayors — are running for election to the City Council against four other independent candidates.

The city’s long-range Master Plan also included a future plan to purchase four residential lots now owned by West U residents.

The controversy over the church’s proposed new youth center included complaints about potential traffic congestion and noise, as well as some anti-religious sentiment over the rights of churches to expand their facilities.

Opposition forced the city of West U to reconsider its plan, to hold two community meetings, to hire a public opinion pollster and to seek an expensive legal opinion from one of the nation’s leading attorneys on the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA).

That federal law, which protects religious institutions from unduly burdensome or discriminatory land use regulations, was passed unanimously by Congress in 2000.

The city hired San Antonio Attorney Lowell F. Denton, to write a legal brief explaining state and federal laws relating to the authority of cities to regulate the expansion of religious institutions. Denton has vast experience representing municipal governments, and he served as the lead attorney for the City of Boerne in the landmark case City of Boerne v. P.F. Flores, Archbishop of San Antonio, and United States, 117 S.Ct. 2157 (1997).

West U’s Zoning Board of Adjustment approved the church’s request to build the new youth center at 3826 Milton, after two lengthy meetings. That property is currently owned by the city of West U, and houses the Department of Public Works’ maintenance facilities.

The city council earlier this week tabled a proposal to issue $3,050,000 in certificates of obligation to finance that move, and other costs associated with the real estate transaction with the church.

The council took that action, after receiving the petition, with 946 signatures, that could force a bond vote on the $3 million in debt financing. Those petitions, which were reported to be collected by city council candidate Reilly and 27 other West U citizens, have not yet been certified.

If the signatures are valid, (and the signers are registered voters) the city could not go into debt without a bond referendum. That vote could not be scheduled until November, at the earliest.

The other opponents of the city’s long-range Master plan are Kelly, Burt Ballanfant and Mardi Turner. With Reilly, they are running as a “slate” in the city’s municipal election, which will be Saturday.

An independent group of candidates also running for council are Bruce Beneke, Sonny Brandtner, Philip Snyder and former West U councilman and (former) Mayor Pro Tem Steven Segal.

West U Mayor Pro Tem Susan Sample is unopposed in her campaign to become the next mayor.

The polls will be open from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturday. All voting will take place at West U’s Municipal Building, located at 3800 University Blvd. Registered voters are now required to bring proof of identification to participate in elections held in Texas.

InstantNewsWestu Staff

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