Debated church request back before county

by Sarah Fay Campbell

A rezoning application for a church rejected three years ago by the Coweta County Board of Commissioners is coming back for a public hearing — this time as part of the settlement of a lawsuit. A year after its conditional use permit for a church on five acres on Buddy West Road was denied, All Souls Church of God in Christ sued in federal court.

The county's planning department had recommended approval of the conditional use permit for the church. The Coweta Board of Zoning Appeals voted unanimously to recommend denial, and the commissioners voted 3-2 for denial, with commissioners Paul Poole, Tim Lassetter and Randolph Collins voting to deny and commissioners Rodney Brooks and Al Smith voting for approval.

All Souls, which meets in a storefront on U.S. 29, bought the property in 2008 as the location for the church. The commission denied the permit in January 2010. The lawsuit was filed in February 2011.

During most of the case, the church was represented for free by the Alliance Defense Fund, now known as Alliance Defending Freedom, which is a legal alliance that defends religious freedom.

According to federal court records, the case was "administratively closed" on May 24 following a settlement conference on May 20. The case was settled, according to the court records, and the proceedings were sealed and kept confidential.

A public hearing on the new application will be held Aug. 6 before the county commissioners. Typically, public hearings on conditional use permits are held before the board of zoning appeals, which makes a recommendation to the commissioners. The commissioners then make the final decision, often after hearing public comment on the issue.

"It is going before the board of commissioners because only the board of commissioners can grant a rezoning request," said Assistant County Attorney Nathan Lee.

Lee said the case "has not settled yet, so I can’t comment very much on it now."

All Souls wasn't the only church the commissioners denied for rezoning in 2010 against the recommendations of the planning department.

Holiness is the Way Ministries had applied for a conditional use permit for 10 acres on Ga. Hwy. 16 East near Old Highway 16. The church had a contract on the property but did not own it. The planning department and board of zoning appeals had recommended approval. The commissioners voted 3-1 to deny, with Collins, Poole and Lassetter voting for denial, and Brooks voting against denial. Smith was not in attendance.

Holiness is the Way filed suit a few weeks after All Souls, on April 13, 2011, and was also represented during most of the case by ADF.

That case was closed on March 28 following a settlement conference on March 27. According to court records, the case was settled and the proceedings were closed and confidential.

Holiness is the Way has not filed a new application for a conditional use permit as of this week. The federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act, better known as RLUIPA, was a factor in the case, and the attorneys for Coweta County mounted a constitutional challenge to that act, which brought the federal government into the case to defend RLUIPA.

The county's insurance company represented Coweta in both cases, said Lee. Coweta County would be responsible for the deductible of $25,000, he said.

Neither the county nor the insurance company is paying the legal costs of the plaintiffs, according to Lee.



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