Renting a commercial building for a church

by jorath campos
(Colton, California)

Visitor Question: We opened a home based new church/mission in Colton, CA City. Now the number of members has grown to about 24 people, thank God, and we are looking to lease a building in San Bernardino City. But I would like to know what exactly type of permits I need to open our door to the new building. I went to the city hall and they gave me an extensive list of applications with a tons of forms to complete and they also say a public hearing will be done. My whole thing is why do we need to go through all these steps when I see so many small churches in the city that I have the feeling they haven't gone through all this process. The cost just for the city application before all the other forms we have to complete is almost $6,000. That's way too much for us. Thanks.

Editors Reply: Congratulations on your success. It sounds as though San Bernadino requires either a conditional use permit (which might be called a special use permit) or an outright zoning change to allow the church land use where you would like to lease space.

If so, you will have to comply. The application fee is expensive, but the city's processes of investigation, mapping, preparing staff reports that will hold up in court if necessary, notifying neighbors, and dealing with public comment also are expensive for them. In short, you will need to pay the application fee, plus any other applicable fees, if you want to lease this particular space. If you cannot afford it, your congregation will need to look elsewhere, just as you would have to find another site if you could not afford the rent.

It seems that the real heart of your question is "what about all those other small churches we see in the city."

There could be several answers to that question. It could be that another church you see is basically a squatter and has not been detected by city inspectors. Maybe the city knows but is turning a blind eye to the situation for some reason. Perhaps the matter is proceeding through court or the less stringent enforcement mechanism.

It seems considerably more likely that these other churches are "grandfathered." This funny phrase means that they were in compliance with the zoning or other land use and environmental regulations when they originally occupied the space, and the ordinance(s) in question allows a land use to continue once it has been permitted.

So what you see on the ground is that churches that began to occupy their spaces in a variety of years have been allowed to stay in that same location, even if later the city changed their laws and regulations so that a similar church could not start in that location again without going through the extensive process that is now being required of you.

It's usually a little painful for us to disappoint one of our website visitors who asks a question, but in this case, it's appropriate to help you face the situation squarely.

As a footnote, if you know for sure that some other church applying in the last few months has not had to go through this expensive and tedious process, the appropriate steps would be to discuss this with a supervisor in the planning or other department of the city that deals with this sort of thing. If you think that person is not being truthful or fair, your next step would be to discuss the matter with the elected representative (often called a city councilperson) for the specific geography in question.

Certainly if you have good evidence that you are being discriminated against because of the particular faith of your congregation, you could have good legal recourse, although the expense of an attorney and lawsuit probably would not be worthwhile for you. Similarly if you feel you are being discriminated against on a racial or ethnic basis, you would need to discuss your suspicions with an attorney.

Otherwise, figure out whether you can afford to be in San Bernadino or not.

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