Church expansion raises concerns

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A proposed new worship center and auditorium at Berean Baptist Church would seat 1,046. (Berean Baptist Church graphic)

Growing Berean Baptist’s plans include new auditorium

As many churches struggle with declining numbers, Berean Baptist in Burnsville reports that its worship attendance grew by nearly 30 percent in 2014 and 2015.

Berean has expanded to include a Lakeville campus at Kenwood Trail Middle School and plans to open a third by next year, according to its website.

But growth comes with headaches, including neighborhood objections to Berean’s plans to expand its home campus at 309 County Road 42 E.

Both neighbors and church members spoke at a Jan. 9 public hearing before the Planning Commission on Berean’s plan for a 26,409-square-foot addition.

The project includes a new 1,046-seat worship space and auditorium, an expanded commons area, additional classrooms, expansion of the parking lot southwest of the church and a new parking lot to the west across Plymouth Avenue.

Between the new worship center and the existing sanctuary, the church could seat up to 1,700, according to the city.

“I’m all for expansion and I think it’s great to see a community church grow,” said Paul Willson, 217 Geneva Blvd. “But this expansion looks like a megachurch, in my opinion.”

Already, traffic from Sunday worship makes it difficult to get in and out of his neighborhood, said Willson, who lives at the corner of Geneva and Innsbrook Lane.

The 17.6-acre church site includes three separate parcels west of County Road 42 and south of 145th Street E. It’s surrounded by single-family property to the north, west and south, and Good Shepherd Lutheran Church to the north.

The church is zoned R1 single-family, which allows religious institutions as a conditional use. The expansion would require several changes to the church’s conditional use permit, including allowing a 42-foot-high worship center in an R1 zone, which has a 30-foot maximum.

The separate parking lot would require both a permit amendment and a zoning variance. A variance would be needed to allow more than three driveways at the church site, where six are proposed and five now exist, according to the city.

When the church sent more than 300 invitations for a neighborhood open house on the project in September, only one resident attended.

When the city hosted a neighborhood meeting on Jan. 4 with church leaders and their development team, 17 residents showed up and voiced a long list of concerns.

The meeting was a “major blowup,” said Bob Hilleque, 150 E. Travelers Trail, who said he started attending Berean in 1994 and that the church is about 60 years old.

“It’s just a wonderful place to be,” he said. “I hope that you’ll consider approving this.”

The crowd swelled to a full house in the City Hall council chambers for the Planning Commission hearing. At staff’s recommendation, the commission voted to table the application to give the church and residents more time to discuss solutions to neighborhood concerns and a traffic study the church has conducted. Another neighborhood meeting, to be coordinated by city staff, is set for Tuesday, Jan. 17, at the church.

“I’ll take a place of worship in a community over the alternative any day,” Commissioner Ram Singh said. But, he added, “How much can we do in an R1 neighborhood? I support places of worship, but I don’t know.”

The number of vehicles coming from the south to get to the church and safety of pedestrians and children is a key concern of neighbors. Other concerns have been directed at the extra parking and lighting and the loss of wooded areas to construction.

With parking on both sides of Plymouth Avenue, “I’m basically going to be driving through the parking lot of a church” to get home, said Mark Schroer, 14600 Plymouth Ave.

“I think for us, this is an issue of traffic, of parking, of size and scope,” said Damon Laliberte, 14609 Innsbrook Lane, who said he shares a property line with the church where the expansion would encroach. There is no planned buffer between the site and the nearest neighbors, he said.

“We’re not talking about a church,” said Robert Breckner, 14725 Innsbrook Circle, who said the church has outgrown its site. “We’re talking about an events center that is a church.”

The church has “done a lot of due diligence” and will have its traffic engineer at the Jan. 17 meeting, said Eric Rose, of Lakeville, who chairs Berean’s building committee and is a member of the church elder board.

The neighborhood objections on Jan. 4 “kind of threw us a curveball,” he said. But the church wants to work with neighbors on possible concessions both sides can live with, he said.

“We understand the concerns and we sympathize with the concerns of the residents,” Rose said. “We’re going to try to do everything we can to be the best neighbor.”

The church also expanded its building in 2000.