New regulations for religious uses in St. Paul look very different than they did a few months ago when they provoked outcry throughout the city.
Adoption of the new regulations will clarify and streamline how faith-based institutions can use their buildings and grounds. The current version of the ordinance won a recommendation of approval in December from the St. Paul Planning Commission. The regulations must be adopted before a Feb. 1 federal court-ordered deadline.
On Dec. 17, the St. Paul Planning Commission gave unanimous approval to the proposed regulations, which were extensively rewritten after an October public hearing. Sixteen speakers and about 150 people and institutions sent in written comments, all raising objections to the original proposal. Planning staff and a commission committee worked with the Interfaith Action Coalition and others to revise the ordinance.
Faith leaders and congregation members said the regulations as originally presented would adversely impact their work to serve communities, through a host of programs and services. Potential conflicts with the free exercise of faith under the federal prompted the Planning Commission to drop a proposed set of regulations on accessory uses. It could have limited new construction for accessory uses.
That section of the proposed ordinance was also seen as violating the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). RLUIPA prohibits local governments from land use regulations that impose a substantial burden on religious exercise.
Area churches weigh in
Several Midway area churches weighed in asking for changes. One is Bethlehem Lutheran Church in the Midway, 436 N. Roy St. Pastor Kirsten Fryer pointed out the church’s many roles in the community, including providing refuge for neighbors affected by smoke, tear gas and pepper spray during the 2020 civil unrest following the murder of George Floyd. “Without question, we said yes because we believe that we are compelled by our faith community to offer shelter to those in need,” she said. That led to becoming a food hub serving 17,000 people while local grocery stores were closed.
The church has housed Open Hands Midway since 2009, which provides meals and food. A new food shelf was created in 2020. A previous version of the regulations would have force the church to go through the conditional use permit review and approval process.
St. Anthony Park United Church of Christ, 2129 Commonwealth Ave., sent the Planning Commission a history lesson.
“ .. our church hosts a Boy Scout Troop. Troop 17 celebrated its centennial anniversary in 2015. It is the second-oldest continuously chartered troop in Minnesota, and the oldest troop in Minnesota continuously chartered by (the church) one organization. This troop is still meeting in the same building as when it began! Although we expect that this relationship would be grandfathered in, we believe that the rules should support similar new relationships as well … If a house of worship has more space that they can use for the good of the community, why shouldn’t they be able to use it?” The letter was signed by Rev. Victoria Wilgocki and Moderator Beth Magistad.
Rev. John Marboe of Zion Lutheran Church, 1697 LaFond Ave., called the original ordinance “highly problematic.” He challenged the city’s definition of “accessory” uses. “Religious education is primary. Feeding the hungry is primary. Serving the poor is primary. Fostering healthy communities is primary. A community that ‘worships’ without engaging in these things is not is not worshipping in deed,” he said.
Marboe called out several aspects of the original ordinance as overly restrictive, adding that the ordinance as first written “restricts the ability of religious institutions to do things that actually enhance neighborhoods and communities and make for a more livable city.”
Dozens of others from around the city weighed in, all opposed to the regulations, One person offered to pray for the Planning Commission.
So, what changed?
The city council will act on an ordinance that doesn’t regulate so-called accessory uses and the notion of building more space to accommodate them.
Restricting new buildings and additions is seen as burdensome for growing congregations, Dermody said. Many religious institutions maintain multipurpose spaces that are used for a variety of events, including events open to the greater community.
Many uses the city considered to be accessory uses are actually primary to a congregation’s mission. “Institutes provide valued community services that complement government services,” the city staff report stated.
The proposed regulations no longer include a conditional use permit requirement for social service and community uses of more than 1,000 square feet. Conditional use permits would now be required for uses of more than 7,000 square feet, and for homeless service facilities such as daytime drop-in centers. That mirrors homeless services zoning regulations adopted by the city council in fall 2021.
Overnight shelters for up to 25 adults and homeless services are still considered accessory uses.
An overnight shelter is a place where people using the shelter pack up and take their belongings every morning. Emergency housing allows people to stay longer. Emergency housing numbers would be limited by occupancy regulations tied to building and fire codes, not to zoning regulations.
Child care centers and preschools, which are only allowed in former regional institutions, would now be allowed in current institutions. Many places of worship lease space to child care centers and preschools, but were grandfathered in because they predate the current zoning code. Changes could have affected Midway churches that house child care centers and preschools. Those include Hamline Church United Methodist, 1514 Englewood Ave., and Knox International Center, 1536 W. Minnesota Ave.
One proposal raised at the October hearing isn’t addressed by the latest round of zoning changes. St. Peter Claver Catholic Church, 375 N. Oxford St., would like to add senior housing to its property. That would be allowed until the current single-family zoning, said Dermody. But the church, school and clergy housing are on a block near traditional neighborhoods mixed-use and multi-family zoning, so a separate zoning change request would fulfill those plans.
Another pending change is to the definition of community centers. That’s a change that would go beyond faith-based institutions.
St. Paul has what is defined as “noncommercial recreation centers” for many years. Those regulations have covered city recreation centers, which since the 1970s have been required to have conditional use permits. Dermody noted that several city recreation centers don’t meet all of the current requirements. For example, Linwood, Groveland and Martin Luther King recreation centers aren’t on arterial streets. now. Proposed changes would eliminate the arterial streets requirement and the requirement for a conditional use permit for city, religious and nonprofit community centers.
Some small uses, such as travel agencies accounting services or small offices housed at religious institutions would only require a review and approval from city staff for approval. Those are regulated in a manner similar to home occupations.
The proposed changes are triggered by the long fight over Listening House, which relocated from downtown to a Dayton’s Bluff church several years ago. The daytime drop-in facility for the homeless opened with city staff approval, but no neighborhood process. Neighbors protested and the matter went to the planning commission and city council.
A debate over city-imposed operating conditions for Listening House that were seen as onerous landed in court. Listening House remains open.
The city needs to spell out regulations for uses at faith-based institutions, as part of a 2019 U.S. District Court-ordered settlement with host church First Lutheran. The city had imposed more than a dozen operating conditions on Listening House, prompting the lawsuit by the church.
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