Urbana home used for religious gatherings sparks controversy

By Jim Shay

On the southwest corner of west Michigan Avenue and Lincoln Avenue in Urbana sits a white two-story home, dressed with maroon shutters and tucked back from the street, that has sparked a tense debate among neighbors.

At Thursday’s meeting of the Urbana Plan Commission, the tenants of the house located at 811 W. Michigan Avenue presented their case for a Special Use Permit to establish the residence as a “church or temple” under city zoning laws, in addition to its status as a single family home.

Owned by the Chang family, who reside in California, the home has been rented to Todd and Mandy Bennett and their two daughters, ages 3 and 5, through local agent Ken Mooney since the end of January 2008.

Christians on Campus, a student organization registered with the University, often utilized the property for religious-oriented gatherings hosted by the Bennetts, before the meetings were halted by a cease and desist order from the city.

Much to the dismay of the surrounding neighbors, the gatherings often clogged the driveway in front of the home with at least six vehicles, creating a hybrid parking lot in the yard with additional traffic coming in and out of the already busy intersection.

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    If the extended permit were issued by the commission, the Bennetts and the legal owners of the house would be cleared to widen the driveway and expand the entrance to allow for a more comfortable parking layout.

    “Confusion” was the theme of most questions generated by the board, as members struggled to understand what sort of business exactly is conducted at the residence in relation to the ministry of Christians on Campus.

    “What in the world is going on in your household?” said board member Jane Burris.

    Sarah McEvoy, who resides next door at 805 W. Michigan and has a history of bad experiences with religious organizations potentially invading the block, urged the board to consider the implications of approving such a zoning law.

    “I think you’re opening the door to uncertainty,” McEvoy said, citing that every pastor at Twin Cities Bible Church, which sits on the northeast corner of the block, has assured against expansion and then did so anyway.

    “I have never met a church that didn’t want to grow,” she said.

    According to McEvoy, 70 percent of the residents of houses within 250 feet of the property signed a petition of protest, though the movement failed to achieve the minimum of 9 signatures needed to file a formal protest.

    Sarah Projanksy, who resides two houses over at 803 W. Michigan Ave., issued a strong message to the board after emphasizing the importance of conserving the nature of the historically stable block.

    “It is time for the city to step in and prevent any further erosion of the neighborhood quality and balanced used of the 800 block of W. Michigan Ave.” Projansky said.

    While the neighbors of the Bennetts lined-up to express their discontent, members of the Christians on Campus group were apologetic that the situation had reached such an advanced stage in the legal process. But they remained protective of a family and organization that cultivates their religious needs.

    Paul Friesen, a member of Christians on Campus, compared the situation at the once-welcoming family home to “like going to a friend’s house and it would be illegal. Very odd.”

    “I’ve been afraid to come to the Bennett’s home (since the cease and desist order),” said Margaret, Friesen’s wife and fellow member.

    Robert Myers, the board member who conducted the original report on the residence, did release a staff recommendation suggesting the application for the permit be denied when the case moves to the Urbana City Council for a final decision later this month.

    According to the recommendation, the proposed church use, in this case parking, would be a detriment to the block’s single family home atmosphere.