Church sold lots and cannot meet parking requirement

by Patty Curtis
(Berkley Michigan)

Visitor Question: I have general questions. A large church congregation owns several parcels in a half-residential/half-office zoned area. It then sells off about 70% of its lots used for parking, so now, rather than the 330 spaces required by code, it now only has around 100 spaces.

There are no submitted plans in place for renovations involving reducing their total pew length (which determines required parking), nor any new permit applications for construction of new lots on their remaining property.

Of course, they can indeed sell parcels, but what, if any, actions could/should the city take to resolve the zoning code violation they have now created for themselves?

There will be spillover parking, as the only places that will be available to park for the church's many activities and services are now on adjacent residential streets in front of neighboring houses in this suburban small city.

Editors Reply: Oh my. As far as we are concerned, this church is now in violation of your city's zoning ordinance.

The zoning ordinance itself tells how the city can enforce the ordinance. In most places, admittedly, zoning enforcement tends to take place when a land use is established and a building permit, occupancy permit, business license, or what have you is issued. Often there is no check on zoning compliance after that unless and until the land use applies for some other city permit.

So your first step should be to make a formal complaint to the city, if you have not done that. Many places allow an anonymous complaint, and if that is one of your options, we suggest taking advantage of it. We say that because someone in a large congregation in a smaller city could become aggressive and make your life unpleasant briefly.

Complaints usually are taken over the phone or in person, although certainly a letter would work, but it would leave a paper trail. Some cities now have online zoning complaint forms as well.

It sounds as though you are already past this step, but just in case, we are laying it out for you and for other readers.

In theory, if your zoning ordinance is typical, the city would send the church a written notice of violation and give it a certain number of days to comply with the zoning ordinance. If that does not happen, then the case would be sent to municipal court. Since counting parking spaces and total pew length is relatively simple, it should be pretty easy for the city to convince the judge this is a violation. Then judges impose penalties, which often would consist of a return court date and a daily fine until the situation is corrected.

If the church neither corrects the zoning violation nor pays the fine ordered by the judge, the case is escalated to a higher court. The goal of all this should be compliance and not financial punishment.

Now a few paragraphs ago, we said this is true in theory. What could go wrong? Well, your particular zoning ordinance might be written so poorly that no enforcement mechanism is specified or that the enforcement method does not have any teeth at all. That is rare, but it could happen.

More likely, a large congregation will have some influential members, and you will have to watch for signs that the city is dragging its feet on enforcement, hoping you will forget the matter. That is why we suggest that you begin to organize your neighbors to fight this. As you point out quite correctly, spillover parking will occur. When the zoning ordinance requires a sufficient amount of off-street parking, this is unacceptable. So start now to line up your neighbors who will support your way of thinking and be willing to make some noise around town to show city employees and their bosses that people are watching to see whether zoning enforcement really works.

Also make sure you have spoken with the relevant city councilperson or persons, as well as your mayor or whatever the chief elected official is called. The support of these officials can be critical in providing staff reassurance that they are doing the right thing by enforcing zoning requirements of a church. When talking with these elected folks, be sure to point out all the time and trouble they devote to zoning matters, and suggest that it is all in vain if enforcement does not occur.

Still, you probably have a fight on your hands, so decide in advance how much energy you are willing to spend on fighting about on street parking in your neighborhood. If you start out expecting this to be difficult and time-consuming, and later find out that all it took was a phone call, you will be pleasantly surprised. Good luck with this.

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