Question from Jeff House, Downtown Developer, City of Oneonta:
Our City of Oneonta planning commission has been asked to consider the use of a first floor commercial space as a church. Our Comprehensive plan is pretty clear about saving these spaces for commercial use, primarily retail, and we have very few vacancies.
Our Commission seems reluctant to say no, although I have weighed in on it, and have asked me to provide any studies or anecdotal info on this issue. Anyone out there that can help?
Update (April 12, 2005)
Thanks for all the help on my recent question regarding the application by a local church to use a downtown storefront. The responses I got were extremely helpful, and I was able to use many of them in my successful presentation to our planning commission. The outcome couldn't have been better, with the church withdrawing their application and working with me to find a new site. Thanks again for all your help, and please pass along my thanks to all those who responded.
Village of Potsdam:
You may want to talk to Harry Willis, attorney with the NYS Dept. of State regarding any First Amendment issues. There have been several court cases in the past few years regarding regulation of places of worship.
New York Main Street Alliance:
There are two interrelated problems with storefront churches:
Churches are typically used on Sundays and on weekday evenings, when most downtown businesses are closed which means that, unlike a library, they do not usually provide spin-off traffic/shoppers for downtown businesses.
Libraries and purpose-built churches (e.g., buildings built to be churches) are usually freestanding buildings on the periphery of a downtown. But STOREFRONT churches are usually part of a retail block.
When shoppers walking along a sidewalk looking in retail storefront windows suddenly come across a non-retail use, they instinctively interpret that to mean that they have reached the end of the retail district, and the odds are good they will turn around, which obviously hurts retail businesses located beyond the non-retail storefront. The same problem occurs with professional offices (like insurance agencies or law offices) that locate in storefront spaces. It is therefore almost always best to locate non-retail uses in non-prime-retail spaces, like side streets and upper floors.
Village of Trivoli:
Tivoli's Zoning Code refers to churches as separate acceptable uses in the Village General Business District. While we have not had any share a building with another use, I would think it permissible in our code. In a sense, I would think an active church congregation would have direct benefit to a business district.
Hornell Partners for Growth, Hornell:
The longer we may be able to preserve our Main Street vacant space for retail the better off our Main Streets will be. To put a church in just to fill the space I would vote against that plan, because tomorrow the retailer may come along and it will be too late. Do you even really have a say about who goes in the space? Who are the owners of the property? Is the church going to pay taxes and rent?
Village of Saranac Lake:
Saranac Lake faced a similar situation. Community Development purchased an abandoned historic structure downtown and offered assistance to an outside developer to purchase and renovate it. One of the churches was looking for a more visible space and actually offered the new owner a large cash rent. I met with the church officials and explained our vision for downtown, the work that had been accomplished to achieve our vision and asked them to reconsider. Although it was tense at best, the church ultimately backed down and a retailer was quickly found for the space.
Stick to the plan!! You shouldn’t be afraid to say no especially since you have the vision in writing, but soften the blow by helping them find another space that is suitable for their needs and is consistent with the communities vision. (Our church purchased an old laundry facility next to the high school on the main road through town. A MUCH better location in the end.)
City of New Rochelle:
In New Rochelle, churches are allowed by right in all zones. However, they must meet zoning requirement regarding height, size, parking etc. We recently had a very raucous zoning variance situation that wound up costing the synagogue applicant over $ 1million in study fess. They obtained 12 variances - a city record. They have now been challenged under an Article 78 by surrounding neighborhood groups.
Better have your Corporation Counsel review case law (especially federal) on the issue. It's quite liberal when it comes to religious groups.
Neighbors of Watertown, Watertown:
My experience is storefront churches turn over more frequently and they sit dark with no activity during the week. Not something preferred for a storefront in a commercial district. One highly visible storefront on Court Street turned over 3 times in a couple of years to different churches until it finally went to an office use.
City of Plattsburgh:
Sounds like a change of use of an existing building. Consult NYS International Building Codes Chapter K for adequate fire separation between occupants.
Village of Lyons:
No such matter has come to the Village of Lyons.
Livingston County Planning Department, Geneseo:
I would think that you would have a hard time turning them down without running into problems with RLUIPA (the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act).
City of Watertown:
We have this same issue here in Watertown and I can tell you at least one major problem that we have run into. A few years ago a local agency took on the rehab of a building in Downtown. They spent about $150,000 fixing the building up and making it look great on the outside. The inside still sits empty, waiting for a tenant or new owner. One of the problems is that this building is the perfect restaurant location, and it was historically a restaurant. Two doors down is a church in a retail store front. Several people have wanted to open nice family-style restaurants, but with the church less than 200 feet away they have to give their approval for an alcohol permit to the ABC Board. While we have been told that a denial from the church will not necessarily lead to a denial for a permit, it has scared away every restaurant that was pursuing the building.
Recently an investment group bought a large building (45,000 sq. ft.) in our Downtown. They had several churches approach them about leasing the space. The churches also contacted the Mayor and the City Manager about our opinions. We are unanimous in our opposition to this. While we have several beautiful churches in our downtown this particular building is prime retail space. Retail and offices drive people into your Downtown every day. Restaurants, bars and entertainment venues drive people into your downtown during the evenings. We don't see where churches in retail locations adds value to this mix.
My advice, stick to your comprehensive plan. You spent a lot of time and money to develop it and it provided you with a very clear road map.
Village of Bronxville:
No similar situation has arisen in Bronxville.
Village of Ardsley:
My only suggestion would be to double check the code for a list of permitted uses in the commercial district.
As an example, our code permits churches in residential zones. One of the listed permitted uses in the B-1 Zone (commercial zone) is "All uses permitted in a Residential R-3 District subject to the provisions specified for such residential district.". Therefore a church would be permitted in the first floor of a commercial space, subject to the applicable conditions such as yard requirements and parking. I have found that similar code language is common among the towns and villages in Westchester County. It is possible that the City of Oneonta may have similar provisions.
By cross referencing the code this way, they may find a more definitive answer.
Orange County Planning Department, Goshen:
You may need to focus on facilitating opportunity for the church or parish to find alternative facilities if you are truly committed to reserved such spaces for commercial uses. Someone involved needs sufficient background in the provisions of RLUPA (Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act), a fairly new Federal Act that provides religious land uses with some significant protection.
Village of Akron:
We are dealing with some problems in our comprehensive plan as well. Two areas were listed as light industrial and we now have two developers who would like to build homes on those properties. The comprehensive plans that most people have developed were fine at the time, but things do change. In your case, I believe most people would probably want to hold on to those properties for retail space.
City of Port Jervis:
We had a similar situation in our downtown where a church was seeking to purchase and occupy a prime building in the heart of our main street. Since it was long ago, I can't recall all the details but one issue I do remember was a provision in our zoning that did not allow the location of a church within certain feet, yards, etc. of a drinking establishment, liquor store and similar businesses. You might want to check your zoning regulations for restrictions on where a church can locate in relation to these type of retail establishments. The church never did take occupancy of the downtown space in Port Jervis.
Preservation League of New York State:
From Community Land Use and Economics Group, LLC: Retail businesses work best when surrounded by other retail businesses. Their display windows help blur the public space of the sidewalk with the semi-private space of the business inside, enticing pedestrians to come in and explore. But, when pedestrians encounter a non-retail-looking space – like a professional office or a storefront church – they interpret that to mean that the retail “zone” has ended, and retail businesses located on the other side of the intrusion suffer. That’s why shopping malls quickly cover over the storefront windows of vacant stores, usually decorating the temporary walls with horizontal lines or other bold graphics to continue the visual line and to encourage people to keep walking. A non-retail use (church, insurance agency, law office, etc.) CAN do things to counter these “intrusive” elements – e.g., maintaining the storefront windows, illuminating them, and using them for displays (even if with merchandise borrowed from other district businesses, or displays from a local nonprofit). But it is better for non-retail businesses and other non-retail uses NOT to be located in the retail core (perhaps on a side street, instead, or in an upper floor space). You can find some interesting anecdotes and data about retail shopping habits/patterns inPaco Underhill’s book “Why We Buy”.
There are other potential objections to storefront churches – e.g., it occupies a space that could otherwise be used for a tax-generating retail business; it is only used sporadically, when other businesses aren’t likely to be open, etc. Again, some of these objections can be mitigated (for instance, perhaps the church would also allow the space to be used for community meetings and other activities when not being used for church purposes) – but it takes a commitment on the part of the church, property owner, and downtown management organization to mitigate the detrimental effects of the church occupying a prime retail space. I have seen very few instances in which this has successfully happened.
From Capitol Hill North/Near Northeast Cultural and Social History: To dovetail on what Kennedy said, my experience in our commercial district is that these buildings are in use maybe 3-5 hours/week, and not during the time when retail establishments are open. Some church uses appear to be some sort of nonprofit dodge and for all intents and appearances, the buildings are not used at all, 168 hours/week. Too frequently, the buildings are not maintained in a way that supports pedestrian activity. We do have three traditional churches on the corridor, one being one of the most magnificent buildings on the strip, but even these buildings are closed much of the time, and act as vacuums of non-activity.
In the zoning overlay proposal that is pending before the Zoning Commission, a 50% retail use is required on all ground floor properties. This mitigates against non-retail uses generally, which includes churches.
It would be easy enough to get a student planning class-studio to conduct a study of this in comparable commercial districts. I would track overall use, use during commercial business hours, and maintenance level of the property.
From New York Landmarks Conservancy: Certainly Christian Science churches have (d)evolved to storefronts as preferred venue (we have just had a NYC Carrere & Hastings Christian Science church sold, thankfully, to a new congregation, but there is at least one more NYC landmark Christian Science church with a dwindling congregations on the brink)...does Oneonta have a storefront CS Reading Room?
Urban areas certainly have a storefront church tradition, and there is no reason they can't go in tastefully if the storefront size is appropriate for their congregation... Erin T. Bearden (with Historic Albany, formerly here, who sent me this posting) was suggesting reuse of existing redundant churches in Oneonta - but I would be concerned with saddling a small or startup congregation with an under maintained historic church building... Maybe if and when this congregation outgrows their storefront -assuming zoning allows them to occupy it--they can take eventually take on an historic church or commercial building...an example of growing into an historic church would be the Tabernacle Church in downtown Brooklyn, which moved from 2 story commercial space (on Flatbush Avenue) to an underutilized historic theater in Downtown Brooklyn's pedestrian mall (Fulton Mall).
From Historic Augusta, Inc: We have an example of a store on our main downtown street that has been converted into a synagogue. At first, it was so low key that few people even realized it was there. Our downtown has experienced new energy by young entrepreneurs establishing restaurants, bars, entertainment venues and small shops. When a new entertainment establishment was proposed next door to the almost-as-new synagogue, the synagogue objected and succeeded in blocking its liquor license since there are distance laws that are designed to keep bars from ending up next to houses of worship. This is one reason why I believe churches and synagogues should stay out of traditional downtown blocks and storefronts. In our case, if enough of them were strategically located up and down Broad Street, they could effectively kill the goose that is laying the golden egg for our downtown renaissance.
To be sure there are many historic congregations who have houses of worship all around our downtown area, and one of them challenged another new restaurant on Broad Streetover its liquor license. That challenge resulted in a compromise that required the measurement to begin at the church's front door, and end at the establishment's front door, and it has to be measured as if you were actually walking from point A to point B - not as the crow flies. I believe that was a good compromise since it respects the right of the churches, while not unrealistically dictating where businesses can serve alcohol even if they are out of sight of the house of worship.
Ontario County Department of Planning, Canandaigua:
You may want to take a look at the following Department of Justice link regarding your zoning question. The Religious Land Use and Institutional Protection Act of 2000 has established some new standards that may apply in your situation.
The DOJ also has provided a brochure on Civil Liberties that provides a slightly more digestible discussion of the issues. Hope this helps.
Village of Brockport:
We, too, have very few retail vacancies. But Brockport has allowed two such uses and has not found it to be a problem. But the locations are fairly innocuous. The locations are:
· On a side street just off of Main Street where the church is undertaking a massive rehabilitation of a long derelict historic building. This should definitely improve the neighborhood.
· In a strip plaza-type configuration set back from Main Street.
I believe that we would be reluctant to approve such a use if it were proposed in the heart of our historic business district, however. Particularly since retail space is at a minimum.
Mohawk Valley Heritage Corridor:
My observation is that you should stay with the comprehensive plan despite emotional feelings about helping a church. Once you break the plan mold, precedence is set and new things pop up constantly. They'll find another place if they are active and enthusiastic.
Village of East Aurora:
The Village of East Aurora has not faced this issue.
Village of Moravia:
Though we have never dealt with this, we would check get the opinion of the City's Attorney and possibly even the Zoning Board. It appears that you have consulted your Planning Board. It would most likely depend on what your laws state.
Village of Cobleskill:
Given your low number of vacancies and the tax issue that is likely to come from the property owner, I would suggest that you strive to retain you commercial space and not approve the use variance. I don’t believe that you are in the same situation as a large Metro area with store front churches in the low income sections. If you approve the change, I would hope that you could legally restrict this so that it does not affect the taxing status of the property. I am unclear as to whether there will be a subdivision of the property and subsequent sale or is this leasee/leasor situation. A subdivision of the property presents a host of issues, including parking that would be tough to address.
City of Newburgh:
One problem we have with churches on the City of Newburgh’s main street (Broadway) is that the churches typically are not open during the day and are open only a few nights/week and Sundays. This leaves a substantial amount of time to have building space dormant.
Also, we run into difficulties with parking and if you are looking to attract entertainment businesses that serve alcohol, there is the liquor license approval which is nearly impossible if a church is already established within 200 feet of the liquor serving business.
Village of Churchville:
Churchville has a commercial building (center of Main Street) that was once used as offices, bank, and even a post office and has been converted to a Church. I recall that our code says that churches are a permitted use in any district. The Village’s comprehensive plan is being revised and I will send this on to the committee - might be something they want to consider.
Otsego County Planning Department, Cooperstown:
If your zoning allows for it, then you have to go through the site plan/special permit procedures and decide based on that. If zoning does not allow for it, then you have to consider a use or area variance.
City of Ogdensburg:
Assuming a place of worship is a permitted use within that particular zoning district, you may want your corporate counsel to review the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 to understand any potential legal ramifications from prohibiting it. If not a permitted use, it seems a use variance would be necessary. In any event, I would suggest review of the RLUIPU Act.
Town of North Elba:
Once you've designated property for religious use - there is a change in your property tax of that parcel of property. In reversal, we had a day care center (for profit) that used the basement of a church for her business - thus that portion of the church went on the tax roll and property taxes are collected.
If you allow a church in a commercial space - there should be a reduction of tax owed on that portion of the building.
Town of Babylon:
My main concern would be parking. If services/events were held on a Saturday or a weekday night, it might conflict with retail/restaurant uses. Weekday queuing for a funeral might present conflicts also.
City of Canandaigua:
We do not allow this use in our central business area. We do it through our zoning ordinance. It is not one of the permitted uses.
City of Beacon:
I believe it's not a local decision to deny a church use of property, provided they can come up with parking requirements. It's general municipal law, or some higher statute. They would of course have to observe things such as a reasonable noise ordinance. (Some years back we had one group which had outside amplifiers in their plans.)
We had one instance where a small congregation arranged with a nearby bank to use their parking lot, but then didn't come in anyway. In another instance the group wanted to use the entire municipal parking lot, including for special meetings, etc. which wasn't approved. We do have one group which is in place, and is a good neighbor.
Town of Lloyd:
The code is your guide and hopefully supports your Comprehensive Plan. That’s all the commission needs on which to base a decision. From an anecdotal point of view: Our ZBA has in the past faced the issue of separation of church and state, and a kind of “sacro sanct” privilege that religious groups sometimes employ – i.e., are they, or are they not exempt from review (under the First Amendment). One avenue of approach is that it depends on whether their operation adversely impacts (including environmentally) the health, safety or welfare of their neighbors (such as stormwater run-off, noise). We have been fortunate that all of the local groups here have been agreeable to undergoing site plan review for community good will and harmony’s sake. The storefront churches have been an item of discussion in a number of professional development conferences over the years.
I pulled one book off my shelf just now that has about 3 pages addressing this matter, called: “A primer of New York law – practical guide” by Attorney Christopher Maffucci who had a practical, no nonsense style that we all enjoyed in his annual training sessions.