SAN ANGELO, TX — Tuesday’s San Angelo City Council meeting had some surprising twists and turns as the body considered the right of Lifepoint Baptist Church (LBC) to rent its otherwise underutilized gymnasium to a commercial gymnastics training company called the Texas Tumbleweeds. The council threaded a camel through the eye of a needle and said the church’s commercial gymnastics ministry can stay, but only under very special conditions.
The issue demonstrated the tension between municipal zoning laws and the First Amendment and the freedom of religion. LBC was seeking a renewal of a special use exemption to rent its gym to an operational business even though the property is located on a lot that is zoned for residential use. A few nearby Santa Rita residents had sued the City, the church, and Texas Tumbleweeds over the original exemption granted in August 2019. During the present year’s renewal process, 34 nearby residents had expressed opposition to the church’s exemption, citing commercial encroachment.
Yet, LBC maintained that the gymnastics company provided faith-based instruction and the lease, revealed to be $3,300 per month from the gymnastics company, was an extension of the church’s ministry. The city council was to decide if it should override a tainted decision by the citizen-run Planning Commission to deny the exemption. The Zoning Commission’s 3-2 recommendation to deny LBC the permit made on May 17 was tainted because the chairman of that board, Travis Stribling, was the son of one of the plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the City, church, and gymnastics company over the same issue. Stribling did not recuse himself from the discussion or vote. Instead he steered the commission’s decision against LBC and voted against the extension himself. Stribling’s refusal to recuse himself resulted in a majority Planning Commission decision against the church that forced the City Council to produce a supermajority, or 6-1 vote, rather than a simple majority to overturn the commission’s recommendation on Tuesday.
Council members in favor of LBC had to walk on eggshells so as to not motivate more votes against the church. Councilman Harry Thomas had already voted against the church in 2019. He said he would wait and see how the arguments before council went this day to make his decision. Newcomer Councilman Larry Miller was seen as closely aligned with the main antagonist against the church and ringleader of the opposition to LBC’s special use permit, attorney H.R. “Winkie” Wardlaw, who was also Miller’s biggest cheerleader during last month’s election where Miller unseated incumbent Billie DeWitt. No one knew how Miller would vote, but most in favor of LBC believed there was a strong chance he would return Wardlaw a favor for his campaign support even if Wardlaw never made a financial donation to Miller’s campaign. See Winkie and the Good ‘Ol Boys.
The situation was also touchy for council because Santa Rita is home to many of the wealthiest and most politically connected residents of the city. Many of its residents are staunch supporters of Mayor Brenda Gunter. SMD 6 Councilman Lane Carter, who represents that area, has his eyes on running for county judge. A misstep here could cost him campaign cash and support later on. At the same time, the neighborhood’s opposition to LBC was viewed by a vast majority of citizens elsewhere as selfish and downright anti-Christian, judging from the letters and public comments throughout the process.
Mayor Gunter approached the problem head-on. A Santa Rita resident herself, she sympathized with the residents in opposition. She said she is committed to protecting the city’s neighborhoods. Santa Rita is known for its peculiar character, she said. “It is important to protect the integrity of the area,” she said. She said that allowing commercial development in Santa Rita could start a trend to deteriorate its character and value.
“I also believe that a home is one’s biggest asset,” she said. She acknowledged that Santa Rita residents are expected fight to protect their home’s value.
On the other hand, she said, the issue is not about a change of zoning, but a permit for special use inside an area that will remain zoned residential, where the building in question has existed for decades. She stressed that Texas Tumbleweeds has impacted the city in a positive way, pointing to the company’s contributions to feeding the San Angelo Central High School winning gymnastics competition team. The gym building, she said, was in need of repair and could become an eyesore if not utilized and if starved of the ability to generate revenue to repair and maintain it. She also asked why other commercial entities in Santa Rita — there are 55 total — are allowed to exist without opposition. She spent a great deal of time emphasizing the existence of RiverView Restaurant, also a grantee of a special use permit in a residential zoned area, located across the street from the church in the River Terrace condominiums that, “serves a great purpose.”
“If there are no issues with the RiverView Restaurant, I’m not sure what the issue with the church is,” she said. She said the restaurant has a similar special use permit that was not grandfathered in historically, but was applied for and granted in 2003.
Gunter proposed what she called a win for both sides. First, she proposed the permit be granted for only the church’s gymnasium, and second, the permit cannot be conveyed with the land should the church sell the gym.
“If the building goes, so does the permit,” she said.
Also, if the specific company, Texas Tumbleweeds, ends the lease, the permit expires, she proposed.
Gunter added that as mayor, it is her responsibility to protect the city from breaking the law. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 (RLUIPA) protects churches from municipal action that could demonstrate discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws against religious entities like churches.
Councilman Lane Carter said the issue can be solved if “simple wording” is added. He agreed with the mayor’s proposals. He reiterated that the permit should not convey with the property if it was sold or the lease to Tumbleweeds is terminated. Adding city staff recommended provisions to the permit, Carter moved to vote to approve the special use permit with the mayor’s conditions added. There were two seconds to his motion.
Dustin Gaines, the attorney representing LBC, made a short presentation reiterating many of the arguments he had previously presented at the Planning Commission. He added that LBC is not leasing the gym because it is “cash strapped.” Rather, he noted, the lease amount is below market value and the church dedicates the money to making improvements to the gym. There is a plan to repave the gym’s parking lot using money saved from the lease payments, he said as an example.
During Gaine’s presentation, Greg Gossett was seen leaning over the shoulder of attorney Winkie Wardlaw who was the instigator and leader of the protest against the church’s permit application. Gossett then approached the dais to speak to council after Gaines was finished.
Gossett said he also represents many of the homeowners in the Santa Rita community. “We’ve had a new proposal today, and I would suggest in the interest of the entire community that we recess this hearing for a short time and let us visit with the other side (the LBC attorney) and see if we can work something out,” he said.
The mayor agreed and went on to other business on the council’s agenda while the room emptied somewhat and the two attorneys had a conference outside the chambers.
Less than an hour later, as council reconvened after executive session and took the LBC issue up again.
At this time, Gaines approached the dais again and requested that the restriction proposed for the permit that ties it to Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics as the only lessor be removed. That is, Gaines requested that the permit remain in place even if Texas Tumbleweeds moves out and the church finds another lessor.
Next, attorney Winkie Wardlaw presented a letter he said he wrote to Texas Tumbleweeds warning that he was basically going to sue them if they proceeded to move into the LBC gym. He called it a courtesy letter and asked that it be included in the record.
“We never understood why we were being vilified because we gave them notice before they (Tumbleweeds) ever moved in over here (into the LBC gym),” Wardlaw said.
At worst, Wardlaw seemed to be admitting torturous intervention with the church’s business efforts to lease the gym by threatening the church’s potential suitor with that letter. His admission seemed awkward at best.
Wardlaw also said that his side opposed striking the name of the lessor from the special use permit.
Several citizens from across the city and the Concho Valley expressed support for granting the special use permit. One mother and daughter drove up from Menard to speak in support of LBC and Texas Tumbleweeds. No citizen rose in opposition.
Gunter reiterated her sympathy with residents of Santa Rita for wanting to protect their neighborhood from commercial encroachment. But on the other hand, she said she was viewing her amended permit proposal that Carter presented in his motion as solving the problem with compromise.
The council did not consider Gaine’s request to strike the specific lessor, Texas Tumbleweeds. Instead, the mayor called for a vote, one-by-one, starting with Thomas to her left. After Thomas voted in favor of the church, Miller’s vote likely didn’t matter, but she called for votes from her left before approaching Miller to her right. The order she called for the votes appeared strategic. The council voted 7-0 to approve the LBC special use permit with the extra conditions attached, that the permit ends with the lease to Tumbleweeds or the sale of the gym property.
With a new special use permit and rerun of the permitting process, some say the Wardlaw et. al. lawsuit against the City, LBC and Tumbleweeds is now moot. We will watch the docket on this case to learn if the hearing on the case scheduled for later this month is changed or canceled.
- Kicking Jesus Out of Santa Rita
- Winkie and the Good 'Ol Boys
- From 2019, City Grapples With Tension Between Church and State
- Finally, we aren't always against Winkie Wardlaw. Here is one instance where Winkie Wardlaw Is Right.