Zoning Board Approves Church Request for Youth Center After Marathon Meeting

After a 6 ½ hour meeting that started Thursday evening, the West University Place Zoning Board of Adjustment gave preliminary approval early Friday to West University Baptist Church’s request to build a new Youth Center at 3826 Milton.

The church — along with its co-applicant the city of West University Place — was seeking a “special exception” to the zoning ordinance to build a new 7,000-square foot youth ministry building on land that currently houses the city’s Public Works Maintenance facility.

The church and the city are involved in real estate negotiations that involve the possible “swap” of land that would allow the city to proceed with a long-range Master Plan for Municipal Facilities.

After lengthy testimony about a traffic and parking study, the ZBA approved the church and city request for permission to allow the construction of the Youth Center on Milton. The West U City Council earlier this week approved an engineering and design contract for a new Public Works Facility that would be located on city property on Dincans St.

After the meeting, West U Baptist Church Senior Pastor Robert Patterson said that the real estate negotiations are still going on.

“The deal is not done,” Patterson said.

But the ZBA’s preliminary approval of the construction of the Youth Center on Milton clears the way for the city of West U to proceed with its plan for future municipal facilities to be located between University Blvd. and Auden, College and Amherst.

Due to the length of the meeting, the board delayed action on a second request for a special exception from the church to build parking facilities in the 3800 block of Amherst. The board will take up that request at its next meeting on April 23.

The city’s long-range plan for a municipal campus, and the church’s request to build a Youth Center that would eventually house 200 middle- and high-school students ignited a firestorm of controversy in usually tranquil West U.

A number of residents opposed the new Youth Center on the grounds that it will not be compatible with the largely residential neighborhood and that it will increase traffic congestion and lead to clogged streets from on-street parking.

Proponents of the Youth Center said it will benefit young people in the community, and could not be stopped because of state and federal laws that protect the rights of religious institutions to build in residential neighborhoods.

Board members and Brennan Reilly, a West U city council candidate who has been an outspoken opponent of the Youth Center, spent several hours questioning traffic engineer Dan Lynch, who conducted a one-week traffic study of streets in the area of the proposed center.

“The bottom line is, we just don’t feel there’s a significant traffic impact,” Lynch said. “I just don’t believe there will be any significant change in the traffic conditions, based on what they are planning. I just don’t see it.”

Lynch also said his study did not foresee any “significant” impact on on-street parking. He noted that the church is seeking a special exception to build additional parking on Amherst.

But Reilly, representing West U resident David Kuykendahl, questioned the validity of Lynch’s analysis. He noted that Lynch’s study was based on the assumption that the 75 youths who now participate in the church’s Youth Ministry would increase by about 1 percent annually.

Reilly asked Lynch how many additional vehicles would be added to the streets when the Youth Center has 200 participants.

“I cannot tell you,” Lynch said. But, Lynch said that many of the young people would not be driving to the center, while others were likely to be carpooling.

Reilly insisted that Lynch’s study was flawed, and failed to provide “any evidence, much less substantial evidence” that there would not be a significant impact on traffic and on-street parking.

Other opponents of the Youth Center also warned the ZBA that the construction of a new youth facility would only exacerbate traffic problems on Milton Street, especially in and around the “toddler park” at Huffington Park.

West U resident David Dutch said, “I don’t think the parking study did a very good job with helping me understand how there’s not going to be a lot more traffic congestion. Nothing was said tonight that makes me think there’s not going to be a lot more traffic.”

Stan McCandless, a former West U city council member, also said he doubted the traffic study.

“This place is going to be a madhouse,” McCandless said.

Their comments about the parking study were echoed by West U residents Zona Ward, Katherine Sweeney and Michelle Moore.

The church’s request was supported by a handful of church members, including one teen who participates in the church’s youth ministry.

David Jenkins said that replacing the public works maintenance facility with a youth center will improve the neighborhood and the community.

“We love this church, and we want to be good neighbors. I believe this facility will help this community raise the next generation,” he said.

Kuykendahl said the traffic study underestimated the impact on traffic and one-street parking. He said the new youth center would become “a community nightmare when it comes to traffic and parking.”

“You should deny this request for a special exception,” he added.

Although the ZBA members had several questions during a lengthy discussion about traffic and parking, they unanimously approved the special exemption for the church, on a preliminary basis. The board decided they should add some special “conditions” to make sure the church youth facility was used primarily for that purpose, as well as some other provisions — be to decided later — to insure that the privacy of nearby residences is protected.

ZBA Chair Samantha Brantley’s motion to grant the special exemption included conditions that the church insure second-floor privacy, fencing “and any other that we probably will come up with at the next meeting.”