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Planning Board reviews church hall use for recreational purposes

Date: 1/11/2010

Jan. 11, 2010

By Debbie Gardner

Assistant Managing Editor

EAST LONGMEADOW - The Planning Board invited Town Counsel James Donahue to its Jan. 5 meeting to advise members on how current zoning bylaws apply to various uses of church buildings situated in residential areas.

This issue came to the board's attention last November when abutters of the First Baptist Church, located at 50 Parker St., complained about noise and light pollution caused by increased use of the church's recently completed Fellowship Hall facility for what appeared to be evening adult and youth basketball events.

Robyn Macdonald, director of planning, zoning and conservation for the town, told Reminder Publications the complaints and subsequent explanation from the church drew into question "whether or not the recreation use [of the hall] was an allowed use under the [bylaw] exemption for a church."

On Nov. 10, in response to abutters complaints, the board asked Pastor David Brown and other representatives of the church to answer questions about hall use and incomplete site improvements. At that meeting Brown told the board the church had initially planned to use the hall to augment facilities for a church-sponsored school. The school had subsequently closed and the church resorted to what Brown called "Plan B" to utilize the space. This plan called for the church to let out the hall's NCAA-regulation basketball court to non-church teams. Among the groups interested in using the facility is the town's Recreation Department.

"We never thought that we were doing anything wrong. Without the school, we opened [the facility] up to the community," Brown said at the Nov. 10 meeting.

Macdonald recently reiterated that town zoning bylaws allow a church to be situated in a residential area because the building is being used for religious or educational purposes.

At last Tuesday's meeting, Donahue said if the teams using the Baptist Church's hall were not affiliated with the religious aspect of the church, e.g., parish-sponsored, there is a "strong argument that [this activity] is not within permitted use" under current bylaws.

However, board members noted First Baptist is not the only church facility in the town used for recreation purposes. St. Michael's Church owns a parish hall located on Somers Road which for many years has hosted basketball games. Macdonald said it has not been determined if the teams who use St. Michael's hall are in a league that is sponsored by the church.

Board member Peter Punderson questioned if similar uses are currently allowed at other church facilities. "Can we restrict the use at one place and not at another? Is it easier to [allow use] five nights at one facility and say, three nights at another?"

Donahue said because of the second statute in the federal Religious Land Use and Individual Institutionized Persons Act of 2002, any rulings must be consistent for all applicable parties.

Macdonald said the board has contacted all 13 churches in town and only First Baptist and St. Michael's have facilities that have recreational uses.

Because Board Member Donald Anderson was not in attendance at the Jan. 5 meeting, the board chose not to rule on the issue that night. "I think it's a fine line and I think the board has their work cut out for them to make a proper decision," Macdonald said following Tuesday's meeting.

"Is this a use that the town residents find desirous?" she said of First Baptist Church's facility and its potential for use by the Recreation Department and other teams. "If so, then the board can look into it and create a new zoning bylaw for this, and a special permit and put it before residents at Town Meeting and let the town decide."

In light of the question of non-religious use of church facilities, the board also elected Tuesday to table approving a request by the winter farmers' market for formal permission to use the parking lot at the United Methodist Church to conduct business.

"Related to what went on tonight, I urge we use caution [on this request," Macdonald said.