Church Parking Lot Leased for Business Parking

by Ken
(Overland Park, KS USA)

Visitor Question: We live near a church which is located in a residential area. The church main parking lot holds about 200 cars. The have leased about 100 of the parking spaces to a clinical research business that's about a block away. Employees of that business park there about 10 hours per day, five days per week and a shuttle van runs back and forth to the business.

It seems to me that is more intensive use than church use anticipates and detracts from the neighborhood peace and appearance. There are some homes located next door and across the street in clear view of the parking area. My city councilman and local planning commission director say it's a parking lot, so can be used for parking cars with no limitations.

Editors Reply: The first critical fact to determine is whether in fact the church parking lot itself is located in a residential zoning district, or just adjacent to an area that is residential. If the parking lot lies within a commercial zoning district, there would be no question that this leased employee parking would be perfectly appropriate.

The second fact to determine is whether the church is operating under any type of conditional use or special use permit issued by the city, or whether it is just a permitted use in general in the zoning district in which it is located.

If there is a conditional use, you and your neighbors could ask the city for a copy of the conditions and see if there is anything there that applies. We think that is a probably a long shot, but it is a relatively easy step for you to take.

It seems that your elected official and planning director have already thought about this matter and determined in their own minds that the parking lot use is accessory to or incidental to the main use of the parcel, which is as a church.

As long as they continue to make this interpretation, it does not sound as though you will find any relief from the city. That leaves you with trying to negotiate a bit with the church and the clinic.

If you have not taken that step, again it is worth a bit of effort. Possibly the clinic might be able to limit the number of shuttle trips or to provide an incentive for car pooling. More realistically, the church or the clinic might be willing to provide some landscape screening of the parking area, which would be marginally helpful with noise but improve the visual quality a bit.

If all of these efforts fall short, you are left with suing the church or the city.

More broadly and for the benefit of all readers who are still here, there are two lessons here for municipalities:

1. All churches erected now should be subject to a conditional use permit. Conditions should speak specifically to times of the day and week when major activity is expected, to parking arrangements, and to any kind of lease of any part of the facilities to businesses. We are seeing churches lease out office space, kitchens, parking, and piano lesson rights. These may be perfectly acceptable, but should be anticipated as much as possible during the permitting process.

Of course the problem with this recommendation is that existing uses cannot be retroactively required to obtain conditional use permits if the zoning ordinance did not require them at the time they were built.

2. Landscape screening or fencing should be required for virtually all non-residential parking facilities, including lots owned by churches, non-profits, and businesses, when those lots are adjacent to or across the street from residential land uses.

Too often our codes have forgotten that residential property values are held back when homes look out on a bare parking lot. This is true of rental property as well.

As a side note, if readers are affiliated with a church, we cannot understand the attitude of a church that acts as a terrible neighbor. Churches have plenty of leeway under U.S. zoning case law, but why forego the good will of the neighborhood?

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