Too Many Churches?
Some neighbors tend to complain about too many Wal-Marts or too many strip joints in their midst. In southeast Orlando, it's too many churches.
About a dozen churchesBaptist, Nazarene, Pentecostal and independentare located within a few miles of each other on the city's outskirts, and more are under construction.
Neighbors venturing out Sunday mornings for bagels or errands often find themselves stuck in traffic, heads bowed not in faith but frustration. Some complain the congestion persists all week as religious, youth, sports, and other activities draw crowds after work and school, too.
Unmitigated by taxes, zoning, or other restrictions, church development can pose a delicate quandary for municipal leaders who want to balance neighbors' concerns with the valuable services churches provide.
In some places, a concentration of churchesbecause of their tax-exempt statusstrains the economy.
Frustrations have grown especially since Bill Clinton signed the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act in 2000, said Marci Hamilton, a professor and church-state scholar at Cardozo School of Law at Yeshiva University in New York City.
The law protects religious landowners from many zoning and other restrictions that apply to other developers, she said. Across the country, governments are challenging the law in cases that could eventually reach the Supreme Court. But it will take time, and meanwhile, neighbors are unhappy, she said.
"It's happening all over the country," Hamilton said. "I get an e-mail from a new neighborhood daily. It's unbelievable what religious entities are willing to impose on residential neighborhoods [because of this law]."
Religious leaders say they are responding to community growth by providing needed services, such as youth activities and sports facilities.
While religious organizations usually are exempt from property taxes, communities are finding other ways to tap them for revenue, said Chris Hoene, director of policy and research for the National League of Cities. For example, some may tax profit-generating enterprises, such as healthcare or childcare. Especially in communities that operate on small margins, a small change in the budget can mean a big difference, Hoene said.
"It's a growing concern, because the not-for-profit sector is continually noted as a fast-growing sector," he said.
Neighbors can feel hamstrung and frustrated by laws and politics they feel encourage religious organizations to develop with little restraintespecially in areas residents had thought would be preserved for agriculture or conservation. Religious organizations are sometimes immune to such restrictions, and neighbors who had moved to open spaces for peace and quiet suddenly find themselves next to a megachurch.
And when they turn to county commissioners for relief, commissioners don't want to look like they don't support a church.
In Montgomery County, Md., just outside Washington, D.C., leaders in 1980 zoned 93,000 acresabout 140 square milesas an agricultural reserve. The zoning allowed churches, and there were about 60 scattered in the area, said Royce Hanson, chairman of the county planning board. But in recent years, neighbors balked as a few megachurches sought to develop in the reserve. Civic leaders moved to curb the growth by rejecting building plans that required separate water and sewer systems.
"Churches, because they produce a level of activity, [were] out of character with the rural area," he said. "Those of us who want to preserve the agricultural reserve believe it was a good solution."