City Grapples With the Tension Between Church and State
SAN ANGELO, TX — The tension between church and state was on full display at this morning’s meeting of the San Angelo City Council. At issue was a zoning exception requested by the Lifepoint Baptist Church, 810 Austin St., in the Santa Rita area.
The church facility was built in 1939 and includes a large parking lot and gymnasium. The gym has been underutilized, said the church’s Senior Pastor Jay Clatworthy. Meanwhile, the pastor noted to council this morning, the church is struggling with finances and has found a tenant for the gym facility and the large parking lot in front. To lease it to a private company, however, the church needs a special use permit from the City since it sits within a residential-zoned area. The church plans to lease the gym to a gymnastics company, Texas Tumbleweeds.
The church followed City procedure and applied for the special use permit through the planning commission that met Monday, Sept. 16. Some residents living in the area objected. Although, the City stated it mailed 24 notices to neighboring property owners and only received one reply. The reply was in favor of the deal.
At the planning commission, Clatworthy told council, he was blasted for being a church that did not pay its fair share of property taxes. The other general objection from some residents in the area was that the commercial enterprise would decrease property values because of the extra activity—primarily traffic— at all hours of daylight. The gym proposes operations that include at least 300 students with classes happening from 8 a.m. until 8 p.m.
“The things the church does has an impact on the neighborhood,” explained attorney Don Payne. He lives across the street from the church. “The crux is that they want to bring a commercial enterprise here,” he told council this morning.
Conoly Brooks, a local businessman an entrepreneur, sits on the City Planning Commission. Yesterday, he made the motion at his commission meeting to deny the zoning exception. It was seconded but failed to pass by a vote of 2-2. There was a second motion to table the issue to await more information. It failed 2-2 also. The Planning Commission took no stand on the church.
Brooks, however, was adamantly against allowing the church to rent its gym to a private enterprise. It was a fairness issue, Brooks said.
“I want it fair and equal for all businesses to compete on a level playing field,” Brooks said. “The church doesn’t pay property taxes, but private property owners do. Someone is losing a lease because the church could offer a better deal to the gym company since the church has no property tax liability. I just want things to be fair and equal.”
Brooks’ second objection was that the exception is wide open. “They may have 300 students this year. How many more next year? Or the year after that? The special use exception was left untailored,” he said.
Last, Brooks said as an advocate for the Santa Rita neighborhood, he believes the City is “chipping away” at its value. He pointed at the City’s approval for storage units to be built at the intersection of W. Beauregard Ave. and Park St.
“That’s the last open land along the Concho River, right across from the lily ponds and we’re going to put storage units there?” he asked rhetorically.
Brooks said the City also built a sewer pump station in the heart of Sulfur Draw, located the picturesque Santa Rita Park.
“The residents of Santa Rita are fed up,” he said.
Here is a video pan of the gym and parking lot that the Texas Tumbleweeds Gymnastics studio will lease:
Payne was more measured in his opposition. He said the church conducted very little outreach and he wanted more information.
“I request you table it,” he said. “But my vote would be no (if you vote on it now).”
Joyce McLaughlin, who said her family homestead since 1928 was next to Mr. Payne’s echoed opposition. “This is quantitatively and qualitatively different from what the church does now,” she said.
Members of the Lifepoint Church rose in support of allowing the exception so the church could lease the gym to Texas Tumbleweeds. The gym performs a necessary service to the community said Sarah whose kids participate in the gym’s programs. “Our gymnasts are working very hard and they feed into Central High School’s gymnastics program,” she said.
Central’s gymnastics is a winning program.
Ashley Panter explained to Council how in today’s world you couldn’t let your kids roam free until sundown. It’s too dangerous, she said. “We have to pay for afterschool programs or our kids will stay home bored,” she said. “Kids can’t go outside, just not done any more,” she continued. “This day and age isn’t like it was when I was growing up.”
Panter told Council that Texas Tumbleweeds afterschool Christian-based curriculum was where she wanted her children, ages 5 and 7, to be. The location would be a blessing, she argued
Mayor Brenda Gunter noted that the gym had been located on the church property for decades. “Why is it an issue now?” she asked.
City Director of Planning Jon James said it was because of the commercial nature of the proposed use. Texas Tumbleweeds was a for-profit gym. He said it is no different from if the church was to open a coffee shop on its property. Selling coffee is not preaching.
Paula McClure, who lives in Santa Rita on Shafter, pointed to other commercial enterprises in the area given special use exceptions by the City, including two daycares, the River Terrance RiverView Restaurant, and Mr. T’s Deli.
Russell Smith, former police chief and Lifepoint congregant, urged Council to approve the exception. “We have no intent to hurt any of the neighbors. We are trying to solve our debt issue. This (opportunity) was like an answer to prayer,” he said.
Pastor Clatworthy said the revenue from the rent would over time allow the church to maintain the old gym. Referring to those opposed because the increased traffic would harm property values, he suggested they are overlooking the fact that if the church had no ability to generate resources to maintain their infrastructure, the area might become blighted and that would have more impact on nearby property values than whatever traffic 300 kids attending gymnastics classes there would cause.
The church and its gym sit in Councilman Lane Carter’s district, SMD 5. He made the motion to approve the exception with several caveats for times the gym will be open. Councilman Tom Thompson seconded the motion. All voted in favor of the church, except Councilman Harry Thomas.
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