Commission gears up for hard zoning decision

The decision to support a Planning Commission recommendation to regulate the building of churches and schools in non-residential areas is stacking up to be a difficult one for Shelby County commissioners.

Commissioner Larry Dillard, a member of Valleydale Baptist Church which has been at the center of the zoning controversy, is not hesitant about offering his opinion.

&uot;I hate to think that we’re coming to this point in America, where you can’t have a church in a neighborhood,&uot; he said. &uot;It’s not America. It’s not Constitutionally correct.&uot;

The Planning Commission has recommended that zoning approval be conditional for non-residential uses in residential areas.

According to Planning Department Director Jeff Pruitt, certain land uses are permitted, not permitted and conditional. In the past, land uses adjacent to single-family residences included homes, churches, schools, home occupations, greenhouses and certain home gardens.

&uot;What the Planning Commission is trying to do is create more protection for single family zones,&uot; Pruitt said.

The commission’s recommendation will allow permitted use for single family residences and home occupations.

&uot;Before it’s permitted, there must be a public hearing before the Planning Commission,&uot; he said, indicating the non-residential use must meet certain conditions before receiving the Planning Commission’s approval.

That approval is not guaranteed, however, said Dillard.

&uot;Even if they’ve met the requirements of setbacks and buffers, it’s possible you could have a subjective turndown,&uot; he said. &uot;The thing that disturbs me is that this country was founded by very astute, wise folks who wrote the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights.

&uot;Taking away freedom of religion is one thing I’ve got a real problem with,&uot; he said.

Commissioner Jimmy Bice disagreed.

&uot;Don’t get me wrong. I’m a prenatal Baptist. I’m glad we have growing pains in churches. But this part about the freedom of religion &045; I have a problem with. Your freedom of religion stops when it causes harm to someone else. Those neighbors are asking for an outlet to voice their opinions.

&uot;I don’t believe this Planning Commission or the Shelby County Commission has the power to stop freedom of religion. Conditional uses are the only way to give the neighbors any say. It will not kill religion.&uot;

Bice said he was looking for some compromise.

Commissioner Dillard offered an administrative hearing before members of the planning department.

The hearing would be held with representatives of the entity in attendance.

&uot;With the administrative hearing, we could satisfy this ‘wanting to be heard bit,’&uot; Dillard said.

Planning director Pruitt objected to the administrative hearing option, stating that it had a limited effect.

&uot;When somebody comes to the meeting and expresses a concern, it falls on deaf ears,&uot; he said, referring to planning department members’ lack of power to affect change.

&uot;They may be heard, but they’re not going to be listened to. I feel that would be introducing a level of frustration for the people.

&uot;A public hearing in front of the staff is not meaningful. One in front of the Planning Commission has meaning, authority.&uot;

County attorney Frank &uot;Butch&uot; Ellis agreed.

&uot;There’s not much use in giving them a chance to be heard if there’s no discretional power backing them up,&uot; he said.

Dillard said he believed Pruitt and the Planning Commission simply did not wish to be bothered with the administrative hearing option.

Other commissioners came out both for and against the issue.

Billy Thompson and Ted Crockett expressed their apprehensions.

&uot;I’d hate to see the good Lord say you can’t come in because you voted against my house,&uot; Thompson said.

&uot;The church has always from time to time found itself in conflict with the state. We need to be careful how we use our power. There is a potential that power could be used to persecute the church in the future,&uot; Crockett said.

Commissioner Dan Acker offered his support to the planning department staff.

&uot;The planning department has studied this issue for three years. A lot of work has gone into it,&uot; he said. &uot;Zoned beats have asked us that they have some protection against these problems. This is what they’ve come up with.&uot;

The commission will take action on the recommendation at its next meeting, April 8 at 8:30 a.m