Visitor Question: A church on the next block over has purchased the house behind ours. We asked some people coming out of the church what they intended to do with the residence, and they said they were thinking they would turn it over to the youth so they could have their own private space. Is this allowed by zoning?
The extra noise and activity from barely supervised youth doesn't seem compatible with our nice quiet residential area.
What can we do about this situation?
We've seen a couple of searches for information on this topic before, so yours seems to be a good question to answer.
If you read our page about church zoning, you will understand that the courts have given churches very wide latitude to do whatever they want in terms of land use, in the name of freedom of religion.
By extension, a court is likely to find also that the church can use the residence it is purchasing for a youth center if that activity is defined as part of the church program.
Your problem as a resident is that it will be difficult to disprove that the youth center isn't a part of the church's overall outreach program and that it isn't used for religious activities.
All it would take is for one or two meetings a week billed as study groups to make a court skittish about disallowing the youth center.
Your city council, or its equivalent in your town or city, probably will have the same reservations, or at least the attorney that your town employs will.
So the first thing after you read this, please head over to city hall and find out exactly what your zoning ordinance says. Nowadays, many zoning ordinances are on-line also, so you might be able to stay in your pajamas and do this part.
If churches are allowed in the zoning district where your neighboring house is located, check to see if a special use permit or conditional use permit is required. Perhaps the ordinance simply would have some limitations on the church use of property spelled out in text.
If there are any permits or conditions, you may be in luck. Your city council might be able to impose some "conditions," as they would be called, on the use of the building.
Reasonable conditions to request would be strict enforcement of the occupancy limit for the building, screening of the parking area specific to the new youth center, a restriction on hours of use, and perhaps a maximum decibel level if you have any similar noise limits included in your zoning ordinance or a separate noise ordinance.
A decibel is simply the measure we use of the loudness of a sound.
You may be able to request the condition that all events occurring in the building be related to the religious purpose of the congregation, but here you really would need the advice, interpretation, consent, and support of the town attorney.
The difficulty of saying an event must be religious in nature is that virtually all religions teach love, peace, and either tolerance or intolerance, so it's tough to show that a particular meeting wasn't religious and that the general court-sanctioned leniency on church zoning doesn't apply.
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