08/18/08 — Storefront churches not part of city plans

View Archive

Storefront churches not part of city plans

By Anessa Myers
Published in News on August 18, 2008 1:36 PM

City officials want to see fewer of them and landlords say they pay the rent, but increasing numbers of storefront churches downtown are causing debate about what kind of business is good business for downtown.

Storefront churches are on most downtown streets, with many of them centered on Walnut Street.

With downtown development efforts as well as incentives being put in place to bring new businesses to the area, storefront churches are a category of downtown renters that some city officials believe doesn't fit into their plans for the city's future.

But, owners of downtown buildings that rent out to churches say they don't have any other choice. There are not a crowd of people clamoring for space downtown, they say.

And even then, their ability to rent to churches is limited.

There are a few other storefront churches in the downtown area, but from William to George streets on Walnut, there are five.

And one more was on its way until the Goldsboro City Council denied the request at its first meeting in August, one that would have been more than 25 feet too close to another church as required by the city's Unified Development Ordinance.

The ordinance states that all churches must be 100 feet apart in that area.

The Goldsboro Planning Commission unanimously denied the request in July, with members saying they felt there were already too many churches in the downtown area.

"(Churches) are killing the tax base downtown. I mean they aren't contributing anything to the tax base, and they have a tax-exempt environment," commission Chairman Chris Boyette said at the meeting.

"They sure don't (contribute to the downtown tax base)," member Carroll Overton said then.

Member Hal Keck was also against another church downtown.

"I've seen enough churches downtown," Keck said.

"That's enough," Overton agreed.

Downtown Goldsboro Devel-opment Corp. Director Julie Thompson said she supports the planning commission's action on the site plan, "as they upheld the policies and regulations the city has in place to address such issues."

Goldsboro officials say churches that rent storefronts is an issue for most areas in the state, as municipalities push for more businesses and development in key commercial areas.

"When you are in the cycle of redevelopment, you want active uses during the day and during extended hours," Mrs. Thompson said. "Storefront churches are usually limited in their activity, only functioning two or three days a week for very limited times."

Another glitch in the downtown spectrum comes with another distance regulation, one that doesn't allow for the kinds of businesses Mrs. Thompson would like to see in the area.

"The other difficulty we have with storefront churches is that there is a 50-foot distance regulation for ABC (Alcoholic Beverage Control) permits between places that serve alcohol and places of religion or schools," she said. "This really limits the amount of spaces eligible for fine dining restaurants, which is obviously a hindrance to our efforts to revitalize downtown."

But what makes the situation even worse, in Goldsboro officials' view, is the limited control they have on private property period.

Planning Director Randy Guthrie said there isn't much he or his department can do to stop storefronts from being taken over by churches, except when they go against zoning and planning ordinances.

"We can't tell an owner not to rent to a church, but any conversion from one use to another would be subject to our zoning and building code regulations, including the current 100-foot spacing requirement," he said.

The City Council adopted a moratorium to study the issue on Nov. 6, 2000, for one year, Guthrie said. Then, the moratorium was extended one more year in November 2001, and then once again in October 2002, making it good until May 5, 2003.

The draft of the new zoning regulations partly came out of the moratorium, which were adopted in 2005, and the still-current 100-foot requirement was put in place.

When asked how many storefront churches are too many in the downtown area, Guthrie said that it was a very subjective question related to ordinance and policy.

But some of the churches that are downtown -- and less than 100 feet away from the next one -- might stay that way for a while.

"Churches that don't meet the 100-foot spacing requirement are grandfathered and allowed to remain unless they shut down for 180 days or otherwise violate their nonconforming status," Guthrie said.

But, he added, they are also subject to demolition by neglect and minimum building code enforcement, just like any other building.

For some downtown business owners, churches are the only groups calling to rent their spaces.

"I would love to rent to an office or lots of retail shops, but the downtown just isn't there yet," said Ernie Mansour, who owns the property on Walnut Street where the additional church was requested.

His aunt, Juanita Mansour, said she currently rents out property to three churches, "because businesses aren't coming to rent."

Mansour said he has a problem with the distance requirement ordinance, saying that it has left him without renters in several buildings.

"I have two or three buildings that have been empty for two years because there can't be a church within 100 feet from another church," he said.

The ordinance has also left him with less money coming in.

"As a landlord, I still have to pay property taxes," he said. "If I have a business in there, a church in there, nobody in there, I still have to pay the taxes."

Personally, he said, he doesn't have a problem with churches in the downtown area. They have "always been a part of downtown," he said.

"They might not have the steeples, but they are churches."

Some of them, he said, have even saved up enough money by renting space downtown to later build their own church.

"Most of these are start-up churches," he said. "They just don't have the money to build a church right away."

Ms. Mansour said she doesn't have too many problems with the churches she rents to. In fact, one of the churches has been renting one of her storefronts for 20 years.

Mansour said his church renters have always been great, too, and they are open when a lot of the other businesses aren't downtown, "so there's no conflict."

Still, some believe downtown isn't the place for too many spiritual groups.

Mansour disagrees.

"I could rent my building to a nightclub easier than I can to a church," he said. "There is something wrong with that."

Phone calls to several of the churches and pastors whose numbers were listed weren't returned by press time, and visits to several of this past week's services showed zero attendance and locked doors.