Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Church Zoning Passes Another Hurdle

A controversial church plan received a preliminary blessing Wednesday from East Hempfield Township officials — but also a warning that final approval will require more work. The township planning commission voted 5-1 to recommend approval of a preliminary plan submitted by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints to build a 25,790-square-foot Church.

However, the commission rejected the church's request to endorse a final land development plan and demanded more detail before it comes back for consideration. The plan has already cleared hurdles with the zoning hearing board, obtaining a special exception for a church in a residential-1 zone. It still must go before supervisors for final approval.

Supervisors earlier this month considered — and abandoned — a motion to appeal the zoning board's decision. The vacant 10.22-acre tract is at the corner of Harrisburg Pike and Sylvan Lane. The plan includes 236 permanent parking spaces, 51 temporary spaces in a grassy overflow lot and a sanctuary with a seating capacity of 320.

Planning commission chairman Keith Falco urged architects to add sidewalks and a landscape buffer around the parking lot before the plan comes back for final approval. David Blackman, from township planning and development, said East Hempfield wants sidewalks along Sylvan Lane and Sunwood Lane as part of the initial construction. A sidewalk along Harrisburg Pike should be delayed until officials determine a "codified plan" for the busy corridor, he said.

That means traffic heading west to the Route 283 exchange would have to exit onto Sunwood Lane, drive east to Sylvan Lane and turn onto Harrisburg Pike at a traffic signal. Residents have said the plan puts a burden on their residential lane. They also worry that motorists might turn west onto Sunwood Lane and cut through the neighborhood. Supervisors have said the church must restrict right turns by church patrons, possibly by placing temporary barriers on the street.

"A lot of us would love to see full access out onto Harrisburg Pike," township planning director Mark Stivers said. "I think we agree that's the best place for it." However, he said, the township can't overrule PennDOT's decision.

Several residents said parking is inadequate for twice-annual church conferences, which church leaders have said could draw up to 900 people. Dan Crocker of 1004 Sunwood Lane said excess cars will park on the streets. And Edward Hunter of 1106 Sweetbriar Way said ordinances should require the church to provide 450 permanent parking spaces to handle the crowd.

But Falco said the issue will be addressed by a building code inspector during the final land development process. Karen Schmitz of 1110 Persimmon Drive argued the plan exceeds the 30 percent maximum lot coverage. The plan lists lot coverage at about 22 percent. Schmitz said the plan does not account for some drives, walks and impervious parking surfaces, which she said take coverage to closer to 35 percent. Blackman said he would look into the matter.

Several residents said church leaders are unwilling to meet with neighbors to address their concerns. But a church spokesman said later that efforts to meet with residents have been rebuffed. Falco urges both parties to get together and hammer out their differences.

Falco also said he wants the church to take another look at bringing traffic into the site from Harrisburg Pike. "There is a lot of cleanup that needs to be done," he said. "There are some items and details that need to be worked out." Planning commissioner Andrew Weaver voted against the motion. He said access issues should be resolved before a preliminary plan is approved.