They say you can’t fight city hall. Well, you can…but without divine intervention, you won’t win.
After planting our church in 2007, we had a series of moves and eventually grew to the point of leasing space 24/7. As we looked for something large enough to house us, we encountered roadblocks from our local planning and zoning department. These organizations have an enormous amount of power and autonomy with precedent in the courts. Thus, they can pretty much do—or not do—whatever they want.
What they often don’t want is new churches. Churches are tax exempt. Thus, if they own property, it’s less revenue opportunity for the municipality. While some see the value in churches due to community service, care for the poor, and just commerce from commuters who attend church events; many town governments do NOT see that value—especially in New England.
I have dozens of “horror stories” to prove my statements thus far. Like the time we were told we’d have to install several exit signs and expensive audible warning alarms 6” off the floor throughout a building we were trying to lease. This would have cost us and/or our landlord tens of thousands of dollars alone. The explanation was that if the entire 10,000 space filled with smoke, people would have to be able to see the exit signs as they crawled around below the smoke. Of course, if the entire 10,000 space filled with smoke, people inside would either be dead or unconscious such that alarms shouting, “Danger—Fire…Danger—Fire” and floor-level “Exit” signs would be of no value.
Actually, the real value in demanding this was to ensure that we couldn’t afford to lease or ever own that building. The town wanted that space in case the State would pay for it when developing a new bus line and train station. One of our local political leaders told us as much after the fact.
Then there was the architectural drawing scam. We would submit drawings to the town who would summarily reject them and when we paid our architect to do new ones addressing the issues listed by the town, they’d reject those as well with a new and different list of problems. After spending $15,000 in drawings alone, we had to walk away.
The final “straw” was when we were all ready to move into the building we now use. At the end our flawless inspection. The fire marshal and the building inspector refused to give us a certificate of occupancy because our restroom signs were “too high.” I pointed out that they were in the exact spot they’d been in with former tenants including one zoned for assembly use—as we were. “I don’t make the rules, I just enforce them and the rules have changed,” the inspector told me. I offered to move the signs right then, but was told we’d have to schedule a follow-up inspection with both men (at taxpayer expense I might add). They returned and approved the 6” lower sign placements. When I asked about the rule I was told that the reason for it was so that a blind person in a wheelchair would be able to easily reach and read the braille restroom notice. “Yes,” I said, “but what about an ambulatory blind person? He will never even FIND the sign now because it’s down around his knees.”
Crazy stuff. I’ve often mused that any church allowing a blind person in a wheelchair to roll around the perimeter of their building, feeling the wall to hopefully find a properly-placed sign instead of taking that person to the restroom door should be permanently CLOSED! But alas, the logic of this rule isn’t the issue. What IS an issue is the use of civic legalisms to thwart the establishment of new churches.
The happy ending here is that we ARE in that building and have been for nearly 6 years now. God is good. Furthermore, He can and will open doors even when City Hall attempts to close them. Don’t give up! If God has called you to something, He WILL make a way. Our church is living proof!