A mayoral veto and legality questions left Milton’s church code where it was seven months ago: non-existent.
Milton City Council voted April 4 to uphold Mayor Shanna Styron-Sherrell’s veto of her previous approval of a code review for churches.
The council passed the 5-1 order on March 21. The bill limited the size of religious institutions to 40,000 square feet in single-family residential areas and added definitions for preschools and schools. Council members said it was important to put in place rules on religious institutions and make necessary changes in the future.
Over the past three years, some Milton residents have fought against plans for a mega-church. The city accepted a request for a 92,000 square foot church in 2019, but some said such a large church was too big for a town of 9,000 people. The 20-acre development plans sparked a city effort to impose size restrictions on future projects.
The bill approved in March imposed size restrictions only on religious institutions.
People who testified at the April council meeting said the order discriminates against churches.
Milton resident Susan Stevenson told council the law was unconstitutional and would negatively impact the community.
“If the church reaches and serves the community and more people come, that’s a good thing. It puts an undue burden on them when you tell them they can’t pursue their mission to serve the community because they can’t grow,” she told the board. “In fact, the bigger they are, the more people and resources they have to serve the community.”
Before the veto was confirmed by council members, some shared the reasons for their reverse votes.
Council member Phil Linden said there were legal issues about restricting the size of churches, even though city staff assured the council of its legality.
“We thought our product was correct and airtight, and that was the board’s expectation in taking this vote,” he said. “Unfortunately, during a senior legal review at our attorney’s office, they said there were real issues with this, and the board recognizes that and is making adjustments.”
Council member Steve Whitaker said the council would never have voted on a bill whose legality is questionable.
“I started to think about the time that had already been spent writing this order and the time these people had spent,” he said at the April 4 council meeting. “They just don’t spend resources well and so we have to focus on spending the resources that come from citizens the way they should.”
Council member Bruce White said maintaining the mayor’s veto allowed the ordinance to be reviewed by the planning commission.
“It allows us to talk to the planning commission about it and make the changes that could potentially bring the community together a little bit and have an ordinance that people could be nicer and fairer with,” White said.
The mayor told The News Tribune there was no set date to bring the bill back to council.
Milton decided to change its development code after plans for a controversial 2,000-seat church were approved at an arbitration hearing. The hearing examiner determined that Milton’s code did not limit the size of a church in a residential area.
The Salvation Slavic Baptist Church proposal includes a 92,000 square foot church, a 7,500 square foot gymnasium, a classroom for 26 students and 546 parking spaces.
Any changes to Milton’s size restriction on churches would not impact the Slave Baptist Church of Salvation’s application, as it was approved by city staff prior to the potential changes.
The city also suspended all development application approvals in a six-month moratorium, but it expired in March. Styron-Sherrell said the city has not decided to renew its hiatus.
Members of the Faith Family Church spoke out against the bill on April 4, saying it restricted and targeted churches. Senior Pastor Greg Parsons wrote a letter to the city, saying the proposed legislation hindered Faith Family Church’s ability to serve the community.
The 40,000 square foot limit would prevent the 37,882 square foot church from expanding its sanctuary or adding classrooms.
“It would force us to consider another location to relocate our congregation which would be a mutual loss to the Town of Milton, the residents of Milton and the partnership the FFC has worked hard to intentionally build with the Town of Milton for 83 years. . “said the letter from Parsons.
The candidacy of the Salvation Slavic Baptist Church had repercussions throughout the city.
Former Milton public works director Nick Afzali resigned in July over the proposal, saying it was not “compatible” with his values. Four of the seven city council members wrote letters or testified against the development.
Residents of Milton have appealed the Hearing Reviewer’s decision.
Others, including Faith Family Church, supported the church.
“I welcome the Slavic Baptist Church of Salvation and look forward to seeing how they will add value to this thriving city,” Parsons’ letter said.