Without public discussion, the Planning Commission May 26 unanimously approved a special exception application by Christ and St. Luke’s Episcopal Church that advances the church’s plan to expand a non-conforming structure along Stockley Gardens and to demolish three buildings in Ghent’s historic district. Since the commission’s special exception vote is advisory only, the final decision will be made by the Norfolk City Council at a yet undetermined date.
This is the second time this month that the commission voted against the recommendations of the Norfolk Planning Department. With regard to the special exception request, city planners recommended that it be denied since it does not meet city code; earlier, they had recommended that the church’s request to demolish the Historic Guild House be denied, a recommendation the commission overruled on May 12. Under city code, that decision is final.
With reference to the general standards for special use applications — please see “What city law says,” a separate entry on this Web site — the May 26 staff report concluded that “a determination of no adverse impact cannot be made.”
Given Ghent’s many schools and 14 houses of faith, there already exists “a fragile balance between the residential and the institutional uses,” the report noted. “In today’s world, many members of these churches live outside of the Ghent neighborhood.” At the peak hours of use for churches, this neighborhood “is inundated with automobiles.”
The addition of a 200-seat multi-purpose space, to be used for weddings and other social events, would significantly impact the neighborhood and increase the activity level of this church, both in intensity and in frequency used, according to the report.
The proposed expansion, which would increase the density of development by 21 percent, 11 percent more than allowed, “is not compliant with Section 12-3.c and 3 of the Zoning Ordinance,” the report noted. It also “will result in the reduction below acceptable levels in the lot coverage ratio.
In addition, “Chapter 12, Nonconformities, of the Zoning Ordinance states that it is the intent to permit nonconformities to continue until they are removed, but not to encourage their continuation over time,” according to the report.
“Finally, the site has been operated as a religious institution for many years. Denial of the special exception would not prohibit the continued use of the site as a religious institution, but would prevent the expansion of a non-conforming structure.”
During both the May 12 and the May 26 hearings, several opponents to the church’s expansion plan repeatedly told commissioners that the two requests do not meet the criteria of the city’s ordinance and urged them to save the Guild House, a contributing structure to the North Ghent National Register of Historic Places District.
Church plan supporters again emphasized the church’s need to expand to allow for more and better programming for its growing parish. The church currently has about 1,500 members, a figure it expects to grow to 2,000 within a decade.
Before the hearing’s rebuttal period, commission Chairman and Ghent businesswoman Barbara Zoby invited church representatives to explain the Secretary of Interior guidelines on additions to historic buildings since she said that she has followed these guidelines for historic downtown properties that she owns. Jim Bickford, chairman of the church’s building committee, said the the guidelines require that such additions be visually and architecturally different from the original structures.
Two Ghent residents disagreed. The federal guidelines were developed with the sole intent to save historic structures and to provide references for projects for which historic tax credits are being sought; they were not intended for projects that require the demolition of historic structures. Furthermore, local ordinances, including the Ghent Design guidelines, take precedence over federal guidelines, they said.