Berean vows to be good neighbor
Before an audience that packed the council chambers and lobby of Burnsville City Hall, the City Council on Tuesday unanimously approved a 30,000-square-foot addition for Berean Baptist Church.
A Berean crowd estimated by a church official at 195 turned out for the vote, which followed four neighborhood meetings and two hearings before the Planning Commission.
For months opponents from the adjacent Interlachen Woods neighborhood have raised concerns about more traffic from the site, which they say is already a problem. They objected to a “megachurch” with, as some said, a new worship auditorium comparable to the city’s Ames Center, next to their neighborhood. They raised concerns about the height of the auditorium and visual screening of the property.
Church officials say they will adhere to a traffic-management plan and have beefed up their original screening plans. The church, which has been at 309 County Road 42 E. since 1963 and undergone expansions, long predated Interlachen Woods.
“Our forefathers in our church bought 17 acres preparing for this day,” said Eric Rose, a church elder and chair of its building committee. He turned to the audience to address neighbors.
“We’ve heard you,” Rose said. The church has increased setbacks for the project, enhanced landscape plans and designed a “living fence” for screening, and have a plan that includes education and volunteers to guide church traffic to Grand Avenue and Portland Avenue, away from the neighborhood, Rose said.
Council members received 264 pages of letters and emails from supporters and opponents, Mayor Elizabeth Kautz said. Rose was given the podium as member of the project team. Kautz asked if opponents had new input not already heard by the Planning Commission.
No one spoke, adding to the proceeding’s conciliatory tone, which Kautz tried to promote.
“The church and the neighborhood — we’re one Burnsville, all of us,” she said.
City staff recommended approval. The expansion required a conditional use permit amendment and variance. The council has “limited discretion on conditional use permits,” City Attorney Joel Jamnik said. The church is a permitted use in a residential zone — the same for all Burnsville churches, Kautz said. Churches must obtain permits and meet the city’s conditions.
Although the Planning Commission voted 3-2 Feb. 13 to recommend denying the expansion, the majority members — who cited traffic and “livability” concerns — offer little in the way of “facts” to deny the land use, according to Jamnik. A traffic study commissioned by the church doesn’t make a case for denial, he said.
The church also has the First Amendment and a federal Law, the Religious Land Use Act, which prohibits burdensome zoning law restrictions on religious uses, behind it, according to Jamnik.
“Anything that a government does to hamper that in any way is going to be given a side-eye by our courts,” Council Member Cara Schulz said.
She said the church has been flexible and made “many changes to their plans, taking into account how that is going to affect the neighborhood. I am extremely honored to be a part of this process, in which all of you have behaved so admirably.”
Council Member Dan Kealey said traffic is his lingering concern but he’s glad to see sandwich boards will be used to direct traffic along with volunteer traffic officers and the hired police officers the church already uses.
One of 17 conditions of approval is that a follow-up traffic study be done to gauge the traffic-management plan’s effectiveness once the improvement is built. The study will analyze Sunday morning and weekday evening services and events from October through March. Any recommendations must be approved by the city engineer and implemented.
The church’s traffic study “works,” City Engineer Ryan Peterson said. Its analysis of key intersections in the area — four along Plymouth Avenue and one at Southcross Drive and Innsbrook Lane — shows mostly free-flowing traffic, with some acceptable delays on Sunday from 10:45-11;45 a.m. at Plymouth and the upper church access.
The project will add a staff and volunteer parking lot west of Plymouth, across from the church, and enlarge total church parking from 765 stalls to 886.
With the 1,046-seat worship auditorium, seating will increase from 980 to 1,604. The auditorium will be 42 feet high, a departure from the 30-foot maximum in the R-1 single-family zone.
Also planned in the existing church building are an expanded commons area and more offices and classrooms.