SAN ANGELO, TX — Should a church in San Angelo be allowed to rent its unused gymnasium to faith-based children’s gymnastics training company when the church is situated inside an area zoned residential? This is what the San Angelo City Council will decide on Tuesday.
Lifepoint Baptist Church (LBC) won a special exemption to rent its empty gym to Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics in 2019 and the church’s gym has been in use ever since. Now the Church’s special use exemption to rent the gym to a commercial business is up for renewal and some neighbors in the plush Santa Rita neighborhood do not want it.
Immediately after the San Angelo City Council approved the special use permit in 2019, former councilman and attorney H.R. “Winkie” Wardlaw filed a lawsuit and delivered a demand letter that the church not open the gymnastics program at its gym. The lawsuit, filed by Wardlaw, Beverly Stribling and Lawrence Ricci, seeks $100,000 in attorney’s fees, a declaratory judgement and an injunction against the City, the church and the gym. No judge has granted any of these things and the gym remains open despite the legal protest. The lawsuit was filed by Abilene attorney Robert B. Wagstaff on behalf of the plaintiffs and Wardlaw claimed his work on his own lawsuit was pro bono.
A court hearing on the Wardlaw, et. al. lawsuit is set for June, and this may be among the catalysts that motivated the City of San Angelo to revisit LBC’s special use exemption from residential zoning sooner rather than later. To wit, one argument Wardlaw et. al. made in their lawsuit was that the City did not send out separate notices announcing LBC’s application for the exemption to each resident at the neighboring River Terrace, a posh high-rise condominium complex across the street from the church. Instead, only one notice was delivered to the complex’s address, so Wardlaw argued that the one or two dozen or so residents there didn’t have their say in the 2019 decision. For the renewal, the City was sure to mail separate requests for feedback to all River Terrace residents. Nearly all of them, 15, came back opposing the church. The renewal hearings and notices in 2021 may make half of the Wardlaw et. al. lawsuit moot.
The other argument in Wardlaw et. al. is that the City had no legal basis to change an ordinance with a mere resolution. However, LBC’s attorney Dustin Gaines argued that this allegation by Wardlaw et.al. is lacking facts. A special use exemption or conditional approval is not illegal by City ordinance or contrary to the Texas State Constitution, he said.
The Planning Commission heard the arguments for and against LBC on May 17. The commission chair, Travis Stribling, who is also the son of Beverly Stribling, the same Beverly Stribling who is suing LBC, Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics, and the City over LBC’s special use exemption, was forceful in his reasoning that allowing LBC an exemption will set off a domino effect. That is, LBC’s exemption sets a precedent for other residential properties in Santa Rita to obtain commercial exemptions as well. His other concern was that the special use exemption will convey with the property should the church decide to sell the gym. The exemption, if granted, was “for life” Stribling argued.
At the May 17 meeting, a motion was made by Commissioner Joe Spano to deny the special use exemption and seconded. After which the commission voted 3-2 against LBC.
Chairman Stribling’s participation in the vote, even though his own mother was a party to the lawsuit against the City, the gym and the church over the same issue, was significant. Had he abstained due to a conflict of interest, the commission could make no recommendation. That he voted and he won the denial, overturning the commission’s denial is more difficult for the city council.
At the 2019 Planning Commission meeting, the commission was deadlocked 2-2, and according to the commission’s bylaws, the commission could not forward a recommendation to the City Council. This is an important distinction. With no recommendation, the City Council’s decision was decided by a simple majority — and in 2019 the Council voted 6-1 in favor of LBC. In 2021, however, since the Planning Commission ruled against LBC, it will require a supermajority of council members, or a 6-1 vote, to overturn the commission’s recommendation.
Councilman Harry Thomas voted against the church in 2019. He remains on the council. That means if Thomas votes against the church again, and just one additional council member votes against the church, LBC loses.
Only one seat on council has changed since the 2019. Upstart politician Larry Miller replaced Councilwoman Billie DeWitt in May. Miller was introduced to San Angelo by Winkie Wardlaw who for all intents and purposes ran his campaign. Wardlaw appeared in our offices to cheerlead for Miller, for example.
Will Miller vote against the man behind his campaign?
The interesting thing is Wardlaw was so involved in Miller’s campaign that one would think Wardlaw would have been a donor. We scoured the campaign finance reports and there are no donations listed in Wardlaw’s name. Is Miller so meek that he will vote against LBC to placate his principle campaign cheerleader's desires even though Wardlaw was too cheap to make even a small token campaign donation?
The actions of those opposing the LBC exemption rise from the miasmas of cronyism and the Good ‘Ol Boy network. Besides Wardlaw’s kept man on the council and Wardlaw demanding $100,000 from a cash-strapped church, there is the son of one of Wardlaw’s co-plaintiffs leading the charge against LBC as the chair of the Planning Commission. Will the City Council see through this charade?
- There are 55 special use permits for businesses to operate inside the residentially zoned Santa Rita neighborhood. If the City revisits the LBC permit, should not Council revisit all of them?
- One of the 55 exemptions is for the RiverView Restaurant that also serves as a venue or gathering place for many events weekly. The San Angelo Rotary Club meets there every Friday, for example. The River Terrace where the restaurant is located does not have ample parking for most of the events held there. Is this not traffic congestion? Why no protest?
- The LBC special use permit is specific. The only types of businesses the permit will allow are “an indoor multi-use recreational facility and related recreational activities, daycare, community outreach, community services, and educational programs.” The permit does not allow the church to rent the gym to a fast food or retail business.
- There is a compromise being floated that will give the LBC the special use exemption, however, it will be written in a way that disallows the exemption to convey with the property. Some argue that placing such restrictions on a church’s exemption while allowing the same types of exemptions, though unencumbered, for 54 other, though secular, properties is discrimination.
- The City received 1,070 letters in favor of LBC from across the city, including one each from LBC and Texas Tumbleweeds. There were 34 letters in opposition, all from property owners within 200 feet of the gym.
- Of those in favor of LBC, two were from owners of property within 200 feet of the church; 34 were in opposition. Of those opposed to the church, 15 were from residents of the River Terrace condominiums and 19 were from other owners of property within 200 feet.
- Churches in the U.S. are afforded extra protection under federal law and the First Amendment of the Constitution. Operating a commercial enterprise on church property is protected. There are also protections of churches written in state law.
- Much concern was voiced about the tax-exempt status of the church and how it is construed as an unfair competitive advantage. However, late last year, Shannon Health took about $25 million off the property tax roles when it purchased San Angelo Community Medical Center. None of those complaining about the church’s $200,000 gym that has never been on the tax roles uttered a word in protest about the SACMC buyout. In fact, state law protects Shannon in being a hospital monopoly as well.
- The memorandum of understanding between LBC and Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics states its purpose is to “Maintain as of first importance the pursuit of the Glory of Christ in all things.” The gym classes are faith-based and the church is integrally involved.
- Churches are tax exempt to provide freedom from the state. The old adage is, the power to tax is the power to destroy. Tax exemption status for churches is also a community benefit. The hope is the church provides more value to their community than the revenue a forgiven property tax would otherwise generate. Churches provide a moral foundation for communities that in practice reduces crime. For example, over 50 percent of San Angelo police calls for service are for domestic disputes. Churches bolster families. In a 2014 interview with then-Tom Green County Sheriff David Jones in the wake of a murder that rose out of a domestic dispute, he said that domestic violence needs to be addressed in more ways than just law enforcement. In fact, all violence can be addressed in more ways than just by paying for more law enforcement.
- Five days after the Planning Commission denied the church its permit that will allow it to use its gym to teach faith-based gymnastics classes for children, shots rang out at an adult softball game across town. Two children were injured.
- What kind of message will City of San Angelo leaders provide in denying a church the right to use its gym to teach faith-based gymnastics in this day and age?
Travis Stribling’s initial appointment to the Planning Commission was made by former SMD 5 Councilwoman Liz Grindstaff. Current SMD 5 Councilman Lane Carter renewed his appointment.