Article Jan 9, 2014

The "Zoning Zone"

Do, do, do, do;

Do, do, do, do;

The well know musical tones from the old show, “The Twilight Zone,” alerted the viewers that they were about to encounter perplexing problems, ironic twists, and unexpected conclusions.

Those musical tones may also work well when a church plans a building project and begins dealing with local zoning officials and zoning codes—as they enter…“The Zoning Zone.”

With all due respect to local officials, churches are often unaware of the challenges that can arise if they want to make changes to their building. But after all, churches are tax-exempt and many times receive streamlined processes as a non-profit organization. However, churches are also buildings where the public is openly welcomed and therefore must comply to safety, accessibility and planning standards of all public buildings.

Certainly, I value the public service of municipal officials and recognize that they are part of governing bodies that God has ordained (Rom. 13:1-7). But the down economy has created new challenges in acquiring municipal approvals. In the past, public hearing schedules were full and caused churches to wait for the next available opening. However, today, schedules are much clearer—so the process should be streamlined, right? Do, do, do, do; remember you’re in “The Zoning Zone.” Schedules are clearer, but now zoning officials have more time to more thoroughly review projects—and they have time to add more comments and guidelines than ever before. All this may be legal and justified as, “protecting the public interests.” But it also creates more time and expense for church projects.

So what do you do when your church is in “The Zoning Zone?” A full answer would require a book, but here are five principles to consider:

  1. Contact local officials early in the process—with full respect and humility. Churches are a foundation of community service and goodwill. However, to zoning or planning departments, churches are just another “land use group.” Especially in today’s politically correct culture, churches sometimes face greater challenges. And as a tax-exempt entity, local officials are not always eager to extend additional “favors.” However, contacts with local officials can also provide opportunities for becoming part of the big picture of community development. Using conversation seasoned with grace can yield very positive relations and opportunities for community impact.
  2. Get professional help. It takes experience to navigate the twists in “The Zoning Zone.” To acquire zoning approval, you may need services from: 

    a. ​Architect—to provide site plans, floor plans, elevations and renderings that show what the proposed building will look like.

    b. Civil Engineer—to provide detailed site plans including: site access, utilities, grading and site retention/detention areas (how and where stormwater will flow across the site).

    c. Traffic Engineer—community officials may require detailed assessments for traffic impact.

    d. Project Attorney—depending on the approval process required, it is often worth the investment for a good attorney to present the case. A lawyer can serve as the “gorilla,” that will not allow a municipality to take advantage of a church.

  3. Push back sometimes; yield sometimes; this calls for wisdom. Develop a critical path schedule for your project and discern between crucial elements for success vs. brief sidetracks. While push back may be appropriate at times, always be respectful and remember that those officials hold the ultimate trump card—they can reject your project. I’ve seen multiple churches purchase property and proceed through the zoning process, only to have their project rejected.
  4. Acquire zoning approval before closing on a property purchase. I can’t emphasize this enough. Include zoning approval as a condition for your offer on a property—you can do this! Yes, it may take longer before closing, but in this real estate market, the buyer is in the driver’s seat and you don’t want to be stuck with a property that you can’t develop for your church facility. I’ve seen churches “stuck,” and they talk to me after they’ve made the purchase when their options are limited and they are at the mercy of local officials. However, if you have not yet purchased the property, local officials are often more cooperative.
  5. Pray. Maybe this is assumed, but may we never take prayer for granted—and in light of the first four principles, we can all see the guidance we need through prayer. Don’t “Sample the provisions without inquiring of the Lord” (Josh. 9:14).

Please note—these processes and costs will just allow your project to move forward. This does not include the detailed construction drawings and specifications necessary to acquire a building permit. That’s all part of the next stage as you enter, “The Building Code Zone.”

There may be numerous twists and turns as you enter “The Zoning Zone,” but God remains sovereign. And if you follow these basic principles, you can emerge stronger in your faith and better equipped for the next stages of the church construction process.

ERLC2018