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Wed, March 20

Are mega-churches and retreats abusing the system?

Where should county officials draw the zoning line for tax-exempt religious retreats and mega-churches?

Members of the Yavapai County Board of Supervisors and the Planning and Zoning Commission tried to confront that thorny issue without infringing on First Amendment rights at their joint study session Wednesday.

Steven Mauk, the director of Development Services, led off the discussion by listing several examples of groups claiming a religious purpose for their activities yet charging adherents to stay at their venues.

Mauk said that under the current zoning code the definition of a religious institution is "very vague." He listed examples of the Mago Retreat Center, a 170-acre complex near Sedona offering 120 rooms for visitors, horseback riding, swimming, a gift shop and dining; Angel Valley, a 38-acre center with 20 rooms, hiking and dining between Cottonwood and Sedona; and Aquarian Concepts, a 15-acre 14-dwelling commune previously proposed but not built near Sedona.

Because these fall under the rubric of religion, they have historically been permitted, Mauk said. But because of their size, they also draw concerns about increased traffic, along with visual and noise impact on neighbors.

"We keep getting into situations where we have no way to limit the activity," Mauk said. Other Arizona counties have more stringent requirements than Yavapai County, he said.

The staff suggested that the ordinances be changed so that religious institutions would continue to be permitted in areas zoned residential with the parcels limited to one acre. The parcel size would not be limited in a commercial zone. Otherwise, they suggest allowing religious institutions in residential zones with administrative approval. If neighbors object, then the group would need a use permit or zoning change.

In recent years churches have evolved into "mega churches" that are "hugely impactful to neighbors," Supervisors Chairman Chip Davis said.

"Almost any group can get together and call itself a religion," said Supervisor Carol Springer. "There are tax benefits. We're seeing a tide. The Verde Valley is attractive to unusual religions. I'd like to see us nip this in the bud."

Supervisor Tom Thurman said the county must be careful not to invite a lawsuit. He pointed out that the U.S. was founded on the concept of religious freedom.

"If you refuse them because they're the Church of the Harley-Davidson, you open yourselves up to a lawsuit," Thurman said.

Tom Reilly, chair of the Planning and Zoning Commission, would like to see neighbors have input into churches built in their area.

"We can't define religion," he added. "We can sure define what happens on a piece of property."

Commissioner Gene Kerkman said, "The issue that got us here is not the one- or two-acre church. It's the spiritual retreats. It's the huge one-of-a-kind (churches) that cause the heartburn."

Reilly agreed that the county zoning code should encourage neighborhood churches but said, "I want to make sure we don't end up in the church of unintended consequences."


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