The Waukesha Plan Commission tabled a request from Alderman Roger Patton to allow churches in the central business district because neither Patton nor the church requesting the change was in attendance at Tuesday night’s meeting.
because a church that had occupied space in downtown Waukesha before would like to move back into the area and found that the zoning law prohibited the move.
RiverPark Community Church is currently renting space in a building on the corner of Springdale and Bluemound roads but has indicated that it would like to resume its ministry in the downtown area.
Since this issue last came before the commission, the city attorney was consulted about the legality of not allowing churches in the area. Concern centers around whether disallowing churches in the area would be discriminatory and, therefore, in violation of federal law.
According to City Planner Mike Hoeft, the city attorney indicated that if the city allows uses that are similar to a church, it can’t disallow churches. The question would be whether lodges or clubs, conditional uses permitted under the existing code, are similar to churches.
The Business Improvement District Board of Directors was also consulted and voted to recommend that the zoning ordinance remain the same.
Hoeft told the Plan Commission that in 2001, when the ordinance was rewritten, it was decided the churches didn’t need to be in the downtown business area. Currently, a church can move into any residential district with a conditional use permit or into an institutional district. They can also petition the city for a zoning change if necessary.
Hoeft said that city staff is recommending to not change the zoning ordinance, citing the ability churches have to request a change in their zoning on an individual basis. He also said that there are “many opportunities for churches to locate in the city of Waukesha” and cautioned that if the ordinance is changed, it could restrict for future businesses in B2 zoning areas.
For example, city zoning code prohibits taverns from within 300 feet of a church. If the B2 zoning code were changed, existing taverns could stay, but new ones opening or needing a liquor license re-issued would encounter difficulty. That zoning conflict would need to be addressed if the B2 code were to be changed, according to Hoeft.
“There are churches down there that can serve the needs of the people down there,” Hoeft said. “There doesn’t seem to be an overwhelming need to do so in this case.”
Plan Commissioner Kevin Larson said that he has attended numerous religious events and gatherings in the downtown area. He considers the church as an integral part of the downtown and part of the fabric of the city.
“I don’t think I could vote no … to a church or worship place in this city, especially in the downtown of this city, where I think a lot of people could be served,” he said. “I would not want to discriminate against this use.”
Plan Commissioner Rebecca Roeker said her vote would be to not amend the zoning code, noting that if a church wants to operate in a B2 zone, they can file an application and seek a rezone, as other churches have done.
“If the church wants to change their zoning, it can. We don’t have to change the entire B2 code to accommodate one user,” she said.
Furthermore, she said that in her professional experience she has had some experience in representing churches and faith-based organizations with respect to discrimination claims.
In her personal opinion, the plan commission was “not even near the boundary line of making an inappropriate decision that discriminates against churches.”
Plan Commissioner Jo De Mars said she was undecided about the issue; however, she said, there appear to be enough other options outside of the B2 area and that she would like to see a vital downtown. She also was concerned about taking businesses off city tax rolls by allowing church use.