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Large churches sprouting up in open, isolated areas

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Posted: Thursday, April 23, 2009 10:00 pm

West Lane north of Eight Mile Road is bordered on both sides by open expanses of farmland, with one major exception: The Home Church, which attracts about 500 to its Sunday services. The first building, containing the sanctuary and offices, was built in 2002. Since then, a smaller building was added.

Meanwhile, Bear Creek Community Church lies on Lower Sacramento Road, also a short distance north of Eight Mile Road, with vineyards all around it.

A Sikh temple is located at Armstrong Road and West Lane, and long-range plans call for a Catholic church at the northwest corner of Lower Sacramento and Eight Mile roads, adjacent to Bear Creek Community Church, and an Islamic center on Lower Sacramento Road, south of Harney Lane.

The most recent county approvals were in December for Harvest Bible Church to move down the street in Morada and build a new church to seat up to 1,000 people, on the eastern Highway 99 frontage road, and last week, the Board of Supervisors approved a use permit for a mosque, also in Morada.

The Morada mosque, however, won't be built in agriculturally zoned land. The property is zoned for commercial use, and religious institutions are permitted in that zoning.

Plans create turmoil

The Lodi area has several churches in fairly isolated agricultural areas, an issue that caused turmoil more than a decade ago, when county officials considered banning churches on farmland. However, the Board of Supervisors voted in 1998 to not ban churches on ag land after pastors filled up the board chambers in protest, Community Development Director Kerry Sullivan said.

(Marc Lutz/News-Sentinel)

The issue came up again in late 2008, when the county Planning Commission and later the Board of Supervisors approved a use permit for Harvest Bible Church to expand onto 17 acres of agricultural land east of Highway 99 just north of Eight Mile Road, much to the Morada Area Association's dismay.

Plans call for Harvest Bible, a non-denominational conservative church, to eventually seat up to 1,000 people in 12 years.

The pastors at Bear Creek and The Home Church say that moving into the heart of ag country hasn't been a problem. Employees and members of the congregation haven't complained about odors and pesticide spray on neighboring farms, the pastors said.

"I can't think of any examples where (churches in rural areas) haven't worked," former county Planning Commissioner Pat Stockar said.

But critics are afraid that churches sprouting up amidst ag land may be growth-inducing, with houses and commercial development built nearby, paving over precious farmland and using up groundwater and septic systems.

Morada activists such as Bill Fields, chairman of the Morada Municipal Advisory Council, say that churches in agricultural areas could end up having subdivisions built around them, either by the church itself or a developer who's a member of the church.

Harvest Bible Church, now in a small shopping center south of Eight Mile Road, is growth-inducing, could add to the continuing depletion of the area's groundwater basin, destroy farmland and cause soil problems, Morada residents said during public hearings on the project. However, the Board of Supervisors approved the project on Dec. 9.

The issue of large churches

The issue of churches - especially large ones - came up in 1997, when the San Joaquin County Planning Commission supported by a 5-2 vote an ordinance that banned large churches from be constructed on farmland greater than two miles from an urban area. The vote came after a three-and-a-half hour public hearing. Lodi residents Pat Stockar and Tim Howard cast the "no" votes.

But in early 1998, the Board of Supervisors, with a full room of pastors staring them in the face, overruled the Planning Commission. In addition to Bear Creek and The Home Church being proposed, Pastor Randy Bowman had plans to build Calvary Bible Church on the western Highway 99 frontage road, just north of the Mokelumne River.

How to be compatible with your ag neighbors

About 10 years ago, a Tracy dairy farmer made sure there wouldn't be any problems coexisting with a church next door by drawing up a binding contract to ensure there were no surprises.

Leroy Ornellas, who now sits on the San Joaquin County Board of Supervisors, said he became alarmed when SouthWinds Church bought 16.5 acres next to his dairy. So he contacted a land-use attorney and drew up a contract in which Ornellas allows the church to build and expand, but the congregation would not be allowed to complain about bovine-related odors, Ornellas said.

"When it went before the (county) Planning Commission, we got up and said we don't oppose this," Ornellas said.

The church property remained bare until a building opened in March 2001. It has two services on Sunday mornings.

"I've been here six years, and I've not heard one person in our congregation complain," Lead Pastor Mike Nolen said. "We all recognize that the dairy was here first - and we're downwind, too."

Ornellas said that employees at his dairy worked the church's fields before the building was constructed, and he continues to have a good working relationship with church officials. He said he also knows several members of the congregation.

"It became in-house humor that sometimes there's a heavenly scent," Nolen said. "And there are some people (in the congregation) who have lived around farming and say, 'It smells like money.'"

Ornellas said that creating an agreement is more effective than fighting a project.

"Once you've created an enemy, you never go back," he added.

News-Sentinel staff

"A great majority of our people live in north Stockton or Lodi," said Tim Pollock, pastor of The Home Church, explaining why he chose the West Lane location.

Bear Creek also has many members in both communities, which makes that church centrally located as well.

All three churches are thriving at their rural locations.

"It comes down to, where is a fouror five-acre site in the city (of Lodi or Stockton)?" Stockar asked. "It's hard to find one for a church as big as Bear Creek or Calvary."

Bear Creek Pastor Bill Cummins said that it takes 20 acres for any church that has a goal of having a large congregation.

"If you go into the city limits of Lodi or Stockton, there's no room," Cummins said. "There are no 20-acre parcels in city limits that meet that need."

Bear Creek has developed 10 acres and is in the process of acquiring 11 more acres, Cummins said. The buildings total 35,000 square feet. Bear Creek's original goal was to have a congregation of 1,000 to 2,000. Currently, about 1,000 attend services each Sunday.

You need a lot of acreage, Cummins said, because a church needs to provide parking, a storm drainage basin, septic tanks and a leach field for the septic tanks. The Bear Creek property has two large wells for drinking water and fire suppression, he added.

For that reason, the Stockton Diocese recently purchased an additional 10 acres to the 10 acres it already owned next door to Bear Creek, Monsignor Richard Ryan said.

Plans were put on hold

Plans to build a parish or a smaller mission church at the Lower Sacramento-Eight Mile Road location in the 1990s was put on hold after a fire severely damaged Church of the Presentation in Stockton, Ryan said. However, Ryan said the diocese may build a parish next to Bear Creek Church within the next five years because Church of the Presentation and St. Luke's Catholic Church, also in Stockton, are very large.

The diocese also considered locating a church at the southeast corner of Harney Lane and Highway 99 for the Vietnamese Catholic community, Ryan said, but the Vietnamese group chose a north Stockton site instead.

Open space advocate Eric Parfrey says the use permit process is adequate for regulating smallto modest-type churches. One reason churches look in rural areas, Parfrey and Morada resident Pat Gotelli said, is that land is considerably cheaper than it is in the cities.

"That's pretty much a given, isn't it?" said Pollock, The Home Church pastor. "It sounds fiscally wise. Who wouldn't try to get a good deal on land?"

There is no ordinance governing churches in agricultural areas at this time, but a use permit is required, giving the county discretion over ag lands and churches with a projected capacity of more than 500 people. That gives county officials the right to evaluate a project for traffic, water, septic tanks, compatibility with agricultural neighbors and other issues.

However, each church is different due to its size and infrastructure needs, Stockar said.

Although there is no ordinance governing church construction in rural areas, county Planning Commission chairman Mike Devencenzi, of Woodbridge, thinks that might be revisited as the county develops a new General Plan.

The main problem Devencenzi sees is that not enough neighbors are notified in rural areas when a development is proposed. Since neighbors could own several acres, there are times when only one person is notified of a public hearing concerning a project, he said.

Contact reporter Ross Farrow at rossf@lodinews.com.

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