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Should Chatham churches, religious groups need county’s OK to move into neighborhoods?

The Chatham County Board of Commissioners Commissions, Karen Howard, Mike Dasher, Diana Hales, Jim Crawford and Walter Petty, will host a public hearing Monday regarding the county’s zoning ordinance.
The Chatham County Board of Commissioners Commissions, Karen Howard, Mike Dasher, Diana Hales, Jim Crawford and Walter Petty, will host a public hearing Monday regarding the county’s zoning ordinance.

Churches and other religious groups might need the county’s OK before locating in neighborhoods, if the Chatham County commissioners grant a resident’s request.

The county board held a public hearing on proposed zoning changes Monday and referred the proposal to the county’s Planning Board for its recommendation.

When the board adopted county-wide zoning in 2017, it allowed churches and religious organizations on any property in the county outside of municipal jurisdiction. The only restrictions were that the property had to be at least three acres and any buildings had to be set back at least 50 feet from the property line.

But nowhere in the ordinance was traffic addressed.

Residents of a neighborhood where a house now is being used as a Hindu temple say their one-lane dirt road can’t handle the increased traffic. They say Hogan Farm Road has been clogged with cars several times since the Radha Krishna Temple of NC opened last April. They fear more traffic in the future when a permanent temple is built.

They attended the public hearing to alert commissioners about the traffic and ask them to amend the zoning ordinance so other neighborhoods do not face the same situation.

James Cassese, who lives nearby and initiated the process that led to the public hearing, said neighbors are not against the temple or people practicing their religion.

“We know this temple will be grandfathered in by the existing rules,” he said. “But we live on a road that was not designed for the amount of traffic that comes with their special events. I understand that changing the wording of the rule is not going to change the religious organization that is there now. But I’m hoping in the future that people living on gravel roads will at least have a say in what goes on in their neighborhood.”

Cassese said religious organizations should be an acceptable use in theory but they can present challenges like traffic, noise and litter.

Cassese asked the board to require religious groups to obtain a conditional-use permit when locating in one of the three types of residential zones (R-1, R-2 and R-5) in the county.

A conditional use permit allows an owner to use a property in a way that is not otherwise permitted in a zoning district. The permit process gives local governments more say when owners seek an exception for the use of their property.

Several other residents of Hogan Farm Road echoed Cassese’s sentiments.

Scott Nelson said the public should have some input on when religious organizations want to locate in area zoned residential. Roland Cargill said churches and temples should be treated just like any other public facility when it comes to zoning and permitted uses.

Numerous members of the temple also attended the hearing and enlisted attorney Paul Messick to speak for them.

Messick cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000 as the basis for keeping the county’s zoning laws as they are. The act protect individuals, houses of worship and other religious institutions from discrimination in zoning and landmarking laws.

“I think the proposed amendment violates that law,” Messick said. “It could subject the county to substantial liability. Singling out churches for these type of requirements creates a burden on the exercise of religion.”

The 4.8 acre site where the temporary temple is located was purchased in March 2017 for $521,000, according to Chatham County tax records. An adjoining 5.3-acre undeveloped tract where the future temple is planned has an assessed tax value of $120,235.

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