Community of Hope Church’s plans for expansion to as much as 114,000 square feet were dashed by the Loxahatchee Groves Town Council, sitting as the Local Planning Agency, in a public hearing on Tuesday. Council members turned down the request in a 3-1 vote, although the church has plans already approved for as much as 40,000 square feet.
Jennifer Morton representing Community of Hope said the church was asking for a comprehensive land use change from agricultural residential to institutional, allowing for development of the church on 35 acres at the northwest corner of Okeechobee Blvd. and E Road.
The campus was first contemplated in 2002 with the purchase of 25 acres where the current church stands. In 2006, the existing church was built under county applications before the town was incorporated.
“The congregation had an initial vision for a portion of the 25 acres,” Morton said. “They filed an application, and that application was transferred to the town to finalize the approvals. At that time, the town had not developed its own comprehensive plan.”
In November 2010, the town adopted a new zoning code that limited churches to 5 acres in size, although Community of Hope already had 25 acres.
“There was a provision that vested current approvals, but they had only come in with a portion of their properties, so there was a little question what was vested and what was not,” Morton said, adding that the church met with town staff about two years ago at about the same time the church acquired two more parcels. “At that time, we were meeting with staff to develop a master plan for the campus. We needed to make minor changes to the site plan, but we couldn’t make any changes to the site plan because what was vested was that site plan that was approved back in 2006.”
Town staff offered for the church to clean up its request, and staff could develop a special policy for that intersection in order to vest Community of Hope.
“It has always been intended that a church be located at this intersection,” Morton said. “That’s what we’ve been working on over the last year.”
She pointed out that in 2017, the county amended its zoning code to allow places of worship in every zoning category in order to comply with federal regulations.
Morton said the proposed land use category is compatible with surrounding uses, although some nearby landowners disagreed.
In addition to asking for a rezoning from agricultural residential to institutional, the church asked for approval of a special policy that would allow it to develop at a floor ratio area of .075, where the maximum allowable development for an institutional use is .1.
“Staff recommended a lower floor area ratio for us,” Morton said. “Initially, we were opposed to reducing our floor area ratio, but after further discussions with staff, we revised our application… So, we’ve been trying to compromise.”
On the entire 35 acres, the application would allow the church to develop up to 114,000 square feet of place of worship, recreation and ancillary uses under the special policy developed by staff, Morton said, explaining that the church’s allowable FAR of .075 is about average compared to other churches in the area.
Morton explained that the master plan calls for the main buildings to be located on the 25 acres originally acquired, with the 10 acres on the north to be for recreational uses that include ballfields, picnic areas, a pavilion and possibly a gymnasium.
Morton added that the church has offered to provide equestrian trails on the north and west property line to tie in with the town’s plans for a trail system.
She also pointed out that the architecture of the existing building fits in with the town’s guidelines, which the church plans to continue.
Town Planning Consultant Jim Fleischmann said a use of .1 would allow the church to build as much as 151,000 square feet, and the Planning & Zoning Committee, which was then the Local Planning Agency, recommended denial, but staff recommended approval at a FAR of .0604, which would have allowed 93,000 square feet.
Subsequently, the church resubmitted the application at a FAR of 0.075, which would allow 114,000 square feet. He explained that the application divides the site into two parcels, with the southern portion having 83,000 square feet mainly for buildings, and the northern portion having 32,000 of recreational uses.
Fleischmann said town staff recommended approval of the application as resubmitted, with conditions including a traffic impact study at the time of site plan review.
Councilwoman Phillis Maniglia asked why the resubmitted application had come back to the council rather than the Planning & Zoning Committee, and Fleischmann explained that the council had recently taken on the responsibility as the Local Planning Agency, although it would go back to the Planning & Zoning Committee for site plan review.
Councilman Todd McLendon asked what the existing square footage of the church is, and Fleishmann said about 18,000 square feet.
During public comment, Pastor E. Dale Locke and several Community of Hope congregants spoke in favor of the application.
“I am obviously speaking in favor of the recommendation tonight,” Locke said. “I am the founding pastor. My wife and I started the church in the fall of 1996 in our living room, and it has always been our desire to have a congregation out in this area… and be a strong and vibrant church, and to be a good neighbor.”
He said it is not their desire to become a mega-church, although Community of Hope does have another location it took over from another church on Military Trail.
William Bell, a former member of the Planning & Zoning Committee, pointed out that the FAR of 0.075 is based on and includes 10 acres the church acquired in 2016 after the church received its approval.
“The dates are pretty important on how the land was acquired,” Bell said. “Parcel 2 was acquired in 2016. That’s very critical to understand, because the ULDC was adopted in 2010, so the purchase of the land was after that.”
McLendon pointed out that the existing approval is for up to 40,000 square feet.
“They could more than double in size now,” he said, adding that traffic is already bad when church lets out.
He made a motion to recommend not to proceed the way the application was presented, which carried 3-1 with Mayor Dave Browning opposed and Councilwoman Joyce Batcheler absent.