Columbia County commissioners make a lot of decisions that affect the future of the community and the lives and livelihoods of its citizens. Usually they make good decisions; sometimes they make questionable decisions; and sometimes they flat chicken out.
Or, in a recent case, lawyer out.
On Tuesday, commissioners were faced with a tough request: members of Westside Christian Church, which has outgrown its current site on Columbia Road, were asking to rezone 10 acres on Halali Farm Road in Evans for a new campus.
Residents of the area didn't like it. There are no real "farms" on the namesake road any more, but homeowners still are trying to hang on to their neighborhood's country feel. Yet in spite of near-unanimous opposition, it would have been no surprise for commissioners to allow the rezoning. Generally, churches are treated very gently in rezoning cases, and commissioners rarely say no.
In this case, though, commissioners didn't just publicly weigh the pros and cons and side with the church. Instead, they took a copout - and it just might come back to haunt them.
Citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA), a 2000 federal law, commissioners claimed their hands were tied. Backed up by the county attorney's opinion, commissioners said the RLUIPA all but prevents them from denying rezoning for a church because to do so would impose a "substantial burden" on the congregation.
Only Commissioner Diane Ford voted against the rezoning. Commissioner Steve Brown made it clear he thought the rezoning was wrong, too, but said he had been led to believe that voting against it would be illegal. It passed 4-1.
Commissioners have now popped the top on a bottomless can of worms. In Dec. 2003, commissioners deadlocked and thus denied rezoning a Hereford Farm Road site for Emanuel Faith Tabernacle. Can that church now take the county to court, based on the commission's own legal opinion?
We believe commissioners and their attorneys have misread the law. Zoning cases involving the RLUIPA around the country generally involve churches that own the property in question, potentially creating a "substantial burden" on the church when it couldn't use its land. Neither Westside Christian nor Emanual Faith Tabernacle owned the land, however; they simply planned to buy it only if rezoning was approved. Such an option to buy means they would have lost minimal preparation costs, not a "substantial" investment.
Now, because of Tuesday's precedent-setting vote, churches - or Satan-worshipper temples, for that matter - can simply buy whatever they want, wherever they want, and commissioners will have no choice but to approve the rezoning rather than get sued with their own legal opinion.
Approving Westside Christian may indeed have been the right thing. But by granting it for the wrong reason, commissioners have painted themselves - and their residential constituents - into what may prove to be a pretty uncomfortable corner.
The Columbia County News-Times ©2013. All Rights Reserved.