By JEFF CLEMETSON
When All People’s Church (APC) submits its most recent update to its proposal to build a church on a parcel of land off College Avenue, Pastor Robert Herber hopes it will be the final changes to the project before the city moves it forward in the approval process. The changes, Herber said, are a response to community input on the project. However, a group of residents, Save Del Cerro, maintain that the church group has avoided meeting with most residents to hear concerns about the project and stand in opposition to constructing the church.
“We love this community. We feel so thankful for being able to purchase this land,” Herber said, adding that he briefly lived in Del Cerro, coached for Crusader Soccer and has staff and church members that live in Navajo communities.
“[We are] super grateful for the opportunity but also really desire — as I’ve said numerous times before — to be a great community member and be a real asset to the community and that’s really been why we’ve had such a commitment to be at all these Del Cerro meetings, the Navajo meetings,” he said.
Herber pointed out that APC has held 19 community meetings with various groups including the Del Cerro Action Council, Navajo Planners and with adjacent neighbors on Marne Avenue, which borders the project parcel.
“Because of the public attack that has been done against us, we even reached out this past week to the Save Del Cerro group and said, ‘Hey, would you guys like to have your leadership and our leadership where we can sit down and have a calm, peace-making conversation where we can answer your questions,’” he said. “Unfortunately, they declined that.”
When asked for comment, the Save Del Cerro group shared with the Mission Times Courier the group’s response letter:
“Thank you for the offer to meet regarding your project. While we can appreciate your effort to create a bridge, doing so with only three community members would only further exacerbate the lack of transparency the community feels in the first place.
“To meet in a ‘behind closed doors’ setting runs counter to the community’s desire of full transparency.
“There are formal channels whereby you can provide community updates (Navajo Community Planners).
“Thank you again, but we will have to respectfully decline your offer to meet, as three individuals cannot properly represent the voice of the entire community.”
Mardine Davis, a Save Del Cerro member also disputes the lengths to which the church has gone to address issues for neighbors affected by the project.
“They have been sort of blind to what the community wants,” she said. “Their idea of meeting with the community is meeting with a few of the home owners on Marne. We’ve talked with people on Marne that say, ‘They never contacted us. We’re directly affected by this and they’ve never contacted us.’”
Herber said the church has listened to residents in the meetings it has held and that APC has “made numerous changes to the project in listening to the different concerns and desires of the community.”
Those changes are reflected in the next submission to the city, which is scheduled for mid-March and include:
• A relocated parking garage away from homes
• Property line screening on the north end — enhanced landscaped buffer and assistance with fence upgrades
• Agreement to gate off surface parking in north to eliminate activity except during church services
• Additional landscaping at the retaining wall near College Avenue
• Agreement to replace trees in College Avenue median that are removed with construction of intersection
And the most significant change to the project is a height reduction of the main building from 33 feet to 30 feet, excepting some architectural elements on the roof that are both cosmetic and used to hide utilities like air conditioning units. Herber pointed out that this change was made because the height of the building was a main concern of the residents APC had met with.
One idea that did not make it into the project update was a wall between the church property and the backyards of homes on Marne Avenue, said APC spokesperson Kristen Byrne. It was scrapped because the space between the wall and the fences would be an “18-inch no man’s land” that would have been a maintenance “nightmare.”
Another change in the plan is how the proposed church would connect to the sewer system.
“The initial plan was to utilize the existing city sewer main that was previously stubbed out at the southwest corner of the site in the late 1950s, this is the same sewer point of connection proposed by previous development approvals on the site,” explained Byrne. “Because no other properties are utilizing that main, and because the main crossed below the Interstate 8 right of way, the city asked us to look at alternative sewer connection options so that main could be abandoned. The current proposal involves a short public sewer main extension through the unimproved city-owned parks property located to the south of the site. This solution will be included in the church’s next submittal to the city, which will be made this week.”
Save Del Cerro member Michael Livingston was unimpressed with the changes to the project and is skeptical that they will even be adopted if the project is approved. He pointed to advice from a Save Del Cerro member who is an architect with experience both developing churches and working in the public sphere fighting against developments that neighbors don’t want.
“He’s got a real well-rounded point of view and he just keeps looking at this and saying, ‘You cannot look at minor changes. It’s not fair play. It’s not going to mean anything, and if this thing gets built, they’re going to go right back and do everything they want to do and more because then they’ll have an approved project,’” Livingston said. “So that’s one of the reasons we can’t be anything but 100% opposed.”
Opposition aside, the next step for the church project is in the hands of the city planning department. If the changes are approved, the city will need to decide if the project will require a full environmental impact report (EIR) or get a negative declaration report which will spare the project from a full review, although both reports provide residents the chance to give input on the project.
Livingston hopes the city will put the project through an EIR process because the report “would have to consider alternative uses for that property, alternative projects.” Because the city has already approved the ColRich development plan for homes to be built on the parcel, “they’re going to have to put that in the EIR,” he said, and added that if the city has to look at the approved project and compare it to one that is asking for “countless variances” to the community plan, “that’s going to look bad.”
“If you look at it from a strictly land use planning standpoint, then you’ve got an approved subdivision project that met all of the requirements of the planning commission and the community plan, the general plan, just down the line. And then when you look at the proposal, it’s so far away from the community plan, all of the requirements of the zoning code, the building codes and everything else,” he added.
Once the city decides on the EIR or negative declaration, and the community has the opportunity to comment on either report, the project will go in front of the Navajo Community Planners, Inc. (NCPI) for a vote on whether to recommend the project. The community planning group vote is only advisory, so even if NCPI rejects recommending the project, the city Planning Commission will still review the project for its own recommendation before ultimately being decided by the City Council.
Herber remained unfazed when asked if APC has a contingency plan should the city ultimately reject the church project.
“We haven’t talked at all about any contingency plans,” he said. “We just believe that this is a great piece of land and that a church is an appropriate use and that as we continue to honor the city’s processes and continue to work through the appropriate things, we believe this will happen and hopefully in a way that’s a real benefit to the whole community.”
— Reach editor Jeff Clemetson at email@example.com.