Two major concerns were traffic and alcohol sales.
Members of The Parish Anglican Church turned out for an Alpharetta Planning Commission meeting Thursday night, June 3, to make an impassioned case for allowing their church to lease space in the Kalen Center.
Their arguments were effective, because the Planning Commission ultimately voted in favor of the lease, despite a recommendation by the Department of Community Development staff to deny the church request.
Council member Michael Woodman opened the meeting by explaining staff objections to the plan, which revolved around the issues of parking, traffic, and alcohol sales.
The Kalen Center, a 17,000 square foot building on Vaughan Road in Alpharetta, has a meeting area that owner Fred Moeller described as perfect for the church’s small congregation. Mr. Moeller and his wife, Susan Lister, operate a nonprofit foster care organization there.
“I was taken by surprise at the objections to a church leasing space in the building,” he said. “The Kalen Center’s purpose from the beginning was to serve the community, and this is the perfect size space.”
Initially, the church asked for space to seat 214, but this number was reduced to 120 and then to 80-seat capacity following objections from some residents of nearby townhomes.
The townhome community secured eight signatures on a petition to prevent the church from meeting at the Kalen Center, primarily because of traffic and parking concerns.
Parish Anglican Church Pastor Jordan Warner addressed these concerns by pointing out that with the capacity reduced to 80, there was enough onsite parking without a need for overflow spots. “I have never seen everybody come to church on the same day,” he said, adding that two church services with seating for 80 people at each one would be adequate.
There are approximately 60 families, including 105 adults and 45 children in the church.
Concern over church growth
Commissioners expressed concern over potential church growth exceeding the need for 80 seats. “A church doesn’t live by a finite number of congregants,” said Commissioner Valerie Manley. “What allows for an outsized congregation?”
Pastor Warner responded that the church hasn’t grown since its beginnings in 2014. “We have less emphasis on getting people into church and more emphasis on getting what is happening in the church into people,” he said, adding that the focus of Parish Anglican is growth for the inner person rather than growth in numbers.
“Our strategy is to be intentionally small, because little is big if God is in it,” he said.
In response to concerns by committee members about crowded events, Pastor Warner said the church would not hold large events such as funeral or weddings, and they would only use the facility at times other than Sunday mornings for special holiday events four times a year.
He said if the church ever outgrew the 80-seat capacity of the Kalen Center, the congregation would search for another location.
One of the biggest concerns involving the lease arrangement was alcohol. It is illegal to sell alcohol within 300 feet of a church, and some commissioners feared land values might suffer if nearby establishments could not obtain a liquor license.
Currently there is no one in the vicinity who would be affected by this. The gas station on the corner already sells wine and beer and this license would not be revoked. Advocates for allowing the church to lease at the Kalen Center described the gas station owner as “on board” with them.
But there are two undeveloped properties nearby, and some planning commissioners were concerned that if someone wanted to build a restaurant on one of those sites, they could not get a liquor license.
Commissioner Candy Waylock questioned denying the church a lease request because of a hypothetical situation. She also pointed out that 8 people who signed the petition did not show up to speak, and that none of the commercial sites have made a protest.
A medical office and retail store have been mentioned as possibilities for the undeveloped sites, but no one has mentioned alcohol, Mr. Moeller said.
Lease denial might be violation of federal law
Another church member suggested that denial of the lease request could be a violation of federal RLUIPA laws (Religious Land Use and Institutional Persons Act). According to RLUIPA, “Zoning codes and landmarking laws may illegally exclude religious assemblies in places where they permit theaters, meeting halls, and other places where large groups of people assemble for secular purposes.”
The federal law is meant to address these concerns by prohibiting rulings that substantially burden the religious exercise of churches or other religious assemblies or institutions.
Thirteen people spoke in favor of allowing the church to meet at the Kalen Center.
Only one person spoke against the proposal. A resident of the adjacent townhomes, he said traffic on highway 9 with all the construction was already “chaotic,” and the private road accessing the center was one of the few places for children to play.
When Commissioners had heard public input, Committee Chair Francis Kung’u said, “I will be voting in favor of the application.”
Speaking of the potential problems with acquiring an alcohol license in the vicinity, Mr. Kung'u said, “I hesitate to preserve a right that might never happen.”
He expressed his opinion that the church would be a good addition to the Alpharetta community after several church members described their outreach and service projects, which included feeding 100,000 children during the Covid pandemic, and their affiliation with foster care.
Following Mr. Kung’u’s statements, the Planning Commission approved the Parish Anglican Church request in a 5-2 vote. The request will now move to the Alpharetta Town Council meeting June 28 for final determination.