Jessica Cejnar Andrews / Friday, Oct. 27 @ 4:01 p.m. / Community, Local Government, Oregon
Brookings Councilors Delay St. Timothy's Abatement Notice Review; Church's Attorney Seeks to Address Zoning Issues
Brookings City Councilors on Monday gave St. Timothy Episcopal Church and the public time to gather more evidence about how the church’s community outreach is impacting the neighborhood.
But though City Manager Janell Howard said it would take at least 21 days for the matter to come back before the Council, a potential recall of three of its members may cause further delay.
“You wouldn’t be able to make a vote without a quorum depending on the number of sitting counselors (there are),” Howard told Councilor Andy Martin, who asked about the timeline and what would happen if the Council’s makeup changes after Nov. 7. “It wouldn’t nullify (the vote), it would just delay it.”
At the advice of their attorney, Lori Cooper, councilors are reviewing a Sept. 5 Planning Commission decision that upheld an abatement notice the city sent to the church on April 14.
At issue is whether the church can operate a day program and legal clinic and provide case worker assistance and advocacy at its 401 Fir Street property, which is in a single-family residential area.
Brookings’ abatement letter also took issue with St. Timothy operating its soup kitchen ministries without a conditional use permit. However, current city action against that program is being suspended due to the church’s federal lawsuit against Brookings, Public Works Director Tony Baron told Councilors.
Churches can operate in a single-family residential district with a conditional use permit under the Brookings Municipal Code, according to Baron. However, the Municipal Code does not allow social service programs in a residential district “either outright or with any conditional use permit,” the public works director said.
Violations can lead to fines of up to $720 per day that the violation exists, Baron said.
The public works director also said that the Brookings Municipal Code doesn’t offer a definition as to what constitutes a church and it doesn’t detail what activities are “typical and-or allowed for this use.”
In his report, Baron cited the Merriam-Webster Dictionary and Oxford English Dictionary definitions of what a church is as a “building for public, and especially Christian, worship.”
“Both of these definitions only refer to worship not to any other religious activities,” Baron said. “The city is not aware of any information suggesting that when people are seeking and obtaining social services at St. Timothy’s there is any worship or religious service being performed.”
Allison Reynolds, a land-use attorney representing St. Timothy’s, pointed out that nearly all of Brookings’ churches are in residential zones. The exception is Faith Baptist Church, which is in a commercial zone.
According to Reynolds, other churches in Brookings, including those in residential zones, provide more than Sunday sermons. This includes a place for people to charge electronics, financial assistance, food, dance lessons, community gardens and narcotics and alcoholics anonymous meetings.
Under guidance from the Oregon Land-Use Board of Appeals, the Brookings City Council should interpret the Municipal Code “based on the text around that term church and the historical context surrounding the use of that term,” Reynolds said. The Municipal Code does not define what a church is, she said, so staff has used “a dictionary definition of church and concludes that a church should be limited to worship,” she said.
“St. Tim’s was alarmed at the staff report’s suggestion that a limitation on church use like this should be put in place for this community,” Reynolds said. “And we really don’t feel the Brookings community would support the city dictating how community members practice their faith in such a narrow way.”
Councilor Isaac Hodges brought up the fact that the Brookings land-use ordinance, which was adopted in 1989, identifies different residential areas, with R-1 being for single-family homes only.
Baron, citing the Municipal Code, said the city’s R-3 residential zone allows for higher density homes as well as community services and “appropriate professional business service offices.”
Hodges pointed out that “there’s quite a difference between an R-1 and an R-3 (zone) even though they’re both residential.”
Reynolds said the city’s staff report didn’t cite those differences and asked for a chance to address those issues. She, and St. Timothy’s, was given an additional seven days to submit written argument.
According to Howard, city staff also needs time to review the additional evidence the church submits and rebut those arguments. This would take about 21 days, she said.
Old County Road resident Blake Peters plans to use that time to try to get more of his neighbors to “bring reality to this whole scenario.” According to him, people accept services from St. Timothy’s because “that’s where the drugs are.”
Peters said he’s seen methamphetamine pipes at Azalea Park, which is across the street form the church, as well as overflowing trash cans “full of drugs” and items they receive from St. Timothy’s.
He said he worries about his family because of what could happen after he leaves for work.
“I drive by St. Tim’s every morning and there’s a minimum of four to 10 people outside waiting for the doors to open. I have a huge pit in my stomach that I’m leaving my family without me there to protect them,” Peters said. “I say protect them because it was back in, I believe, April, that my neighbor had his house broken into and him and his wife were assaulted. After that I went and had signs made and handed them all out to the neighborhood and asked if I could speak on the neighborhood’s behalf and so that’s why I’m here tonight.”
Peters told the City Council that he’d like to get more of his neighbors to testify before them.
Another couple who live on the same road as St. Timothy’s said they’re often subject to yelling and inappropriate name-calling during trips to their mailbox or when taking in groceries or doing anything else outside their home.
Rev. Cora Rose, an attorney and Evangelical Lutheran Church in America deaconess, said she often walks from her home on Spruce Street to St. Timothy’s, where she oversees the legal aid ministry. Most people that visit the church for assistance are long-time Brookings residents, she said.
“I came home to help serve my community and that first day I met five of my own classmates who were seeking assistance at St. Timothy’s,” Rose said. “Since that time, I’ve come to know friends’ and classmates’ grandparents, uncles and aunts who are now in their 70s and 80s who are also seeking assistance at St. Timothy’s.”
According to Rose, the church participates in Brookings’ Property Watch program and regularly asks the police department to trespass people. This means they are permanently excluded from the church for violating its rules, Rose said, which prohibits drug use and the display of paraphernalia.
Rose said that unless people are participating in a Narcotics or Alcoholics Anonymous meeting or are attending evening worship, St. Timothy’s doesn’t allow people on its property after dark, which, she says, matches the rules at Azalea Park.
“When I drive by the church — when I’m on my to work or when the program’s not operating — I regularly see an empty parking lot in a quiet peaceful setting,” she said. “I don’t see the problems that have been discussed. I’m not here overnight, but we do participate in the Property Watch Program and as soon as we get a complaint we contact the police and do trespass folks for breaking the rules.”
The Brookings City Council will continue its review of the abatement notice against St. Timothy’s after a vote on whether or not Mayor Ron Hedenskog and councilors Ed Schreiber and Michelle Morosky should be recalled concludes Nov. 7.
According to Dennis Triglia, chief petitioner in the effort to recall Hedenskog, 822 ballots have been submitted to the Curry County clerk’s office as of Thursday.
The abatement notice also comes as both the city and the church ask a U.S. District Court Judge to consider issuing a summary judgment on whether St. Timothy can continue its community kitchen ministry at its Fir Street location.