A hundred years ago, it was common to build churches in the center of residential neighborhoods so people could walk to their local parish. Churches got around zoning laws that specified particular uses by being allowed “as of right” use under municipal zoning codes in residential districts.
But over time, churches became more like other businesses in practice. A day care center or meal program may draw people many days per week, and most everyone drives, so parking and traffic are an issue.
When church buildings are sold for new uses, zoning may need to be changed, and this can be controversial. Here’s a story from Portland, Maine about a church that sold its building to a business owner who wants to restore the sanctuary but use the manse to house a software business employing up to 14 people. Some neighbors in this upscale community are in a snit. If the church is now allowed to be zoned “commercial”, other property owners will want to follow suit.
The new owner, for his part, argues that he needs the business use of the manse to produce earnings to pay for the restoration, and he does have a history of building restoration.
I’ve served on a zoning and planning commission, and I don’t see a significant difference between church use of property and business use. If it were up to me, I would recommend a zoning variance and then document specific reasons why the variance was approved so other property owners don’t think they can easily re-zone.
It’s not easy to sell a church building! Would the neighbors rather have an abandoned building on their hands?
What do you think?