Coon Rapids City Council overturns planning commission decision on church

A church will be able to move into an office building on Hanson Boulevard, Coon Rapids, that has remained vacant for several years.

The Coon Rapids City Council, by unanimous vote Feb. 5, overturned Coon Rapids Planning Commission denial of a conditional use permit for North Point Church to use property at 10732 Hanson Blvd., which is adjacent to the railroad tracks.

The church had appealed the commission’s decision to the council.

The main issue was parking, specifically the parking lot at the rear of the building, which staff and commission members maintained was in such a state of disrepair that it needed to be reconstructed. But Ronald Touchette, Rock Solid Companies, who represented the church, said just needed to be maintained with the existing holes filled in.

Reconstructing the parking lot would not only have been expensive and beyond the church’s budget, but also triggered the need to bring the property into code conformance, including setbacks, that would have added even more cost to the church.

By performing general maintenance on the property, both inside the building and outside, the church would fall under the “non-conformities” provision of city code, which allows non-conforming site improvements to be used without bringing the property completely up to code until a specified event takes place, according to Planner Scott Harlicker.

Right now, the congregation is small enough, some 110 active members, that the rear parking lot, which Harlicker said was not built to be a parking lot, but rather for loading and unloading trucks – there is a loading dock there – is not needed for parking for the church; there is existing parking on the property sufficient for that.

But in its permit application, the church proposed seating inside the building for 200 and that would require the parking in the rear area of the property.

It was the planning commission’s contention that using the rear area for parking without reconstructing it would not comply with the standards for parking surfaces in city code and would endanger the public health and safety with unnecessary hazards, Harlicker said.

“The commission was also concerned about setting a precedent,” said Community Development Director Marc Nevinski.

According to Touchette, the church needs to provide seating for 200, even though it does have that many members right now, to obtain the financing it needs from the Wesleyan Church, with which it is affiliated.

The work proposed is deferred maintenance from the past four years, general basic repairs on the building; exterior work including the removal of the loading dock replacing it with a sidewalk area; parking lot pothole repair; sealing and striping of the existing parking lot; and fixing and maintaining the fencing, Touchette told the council.

The rear parking area does not need to be replaced, he said.

“The property is a challenge and looks as though the world went by it,” Touchette said.

“It is a perfect home for the church and is in desperate need of some love and attention that only the church will bring.”

Indeed, church members spent a Saturday last fall picking up all the leaves and debris on the property, Touchette said.

Councilmembers made it clear that they wanted to “find a way” to approve the permit that would allow the church to move in and fix up a building that they considered an eyesore.

“The property has gone downhill and the church would be a good fit,” said Councilmember Jerry Koch. “It looks like a stockade right now.”

But Councilmember Bruce Sanders said while he wanted to “make this happen,” he wanted to ensure that it was not precedent setting and the process through which the commission made its decision was respected.

According to Councilmember Denise Klint, the council has more flexibility than staff and the planning commission in dealing with land use issues.

“This is an exciting project,” Klint said. “This is not a business, but a church with a commitment to making this a welcoming place for people in the community.”

This is a good use of the property and “we need to make it work,” said Councilmember Paul Johnson.

There was some discussion by council on using on-street parking on 108th when the existing parking places are filled, rather than the rear area.

But Councilmember Steve Wells said that made no sense when parking in the rear lot would be available with the maintenance the church is proposing, not the reconstruction.

There were conditions attached by the council to the approval of the permit and these were agreeable to North Point Church, according to Harlicker.

One is that vehicles in the existing parking area adjacent to 108th not overlap the sidewalk, while the drive aisles in the parking lots must be 24 feet wide.

The church has until February 2015 to complete its planned improvement and must submit parking, landscape and site plans to the city.

And when the congregation reaches the 200 threshold to require the extra parking, then that would trigger the improvements needed to bring the property up to code, according to Harlicker.

In a letter to the city accompanying the permit application, the Rev. David DeVel, lead pastor, wrote that North Point Church has been meeting at Northdale Middle School the past three years.

The church planned to use the Hanson building, not only for worship services, but also for religious instruction for all ages; outreach; ministries dictated by the needs of the congregation and community; and usual gatherings and meetings consistent with religious organizations and to foster community, according to DeVel’s letter.