Planning commission prepares to debate 'mega-churches'

"Vince Seim lives in Forest Lane Townhomes, directly across from the proposed site of the Christian Faith Center. So does Gary Robertson. But ask them what they think about the church's plans to construct a 5,000-seat sanctuary, school and several other buildings at the now-forested site and the men might as well live on different planets. No negatives here, said Seim, a Christian Faith Center member who would love to reach his church's door in mere minutes. I think they're looking in the right direction to grow, see people be happy and be positive. But the idea of thousands of parishioners driving through his neighborhood makes Robertson unhappy. I don't see any positive coming from this church being built at this location, he said. How am I going to get in and out of this place with all this traffic? Next week, Federal Way Planning Commission members will weigh such opinions when they consider creating a mega-churches designation that would cover churches that seat 1,000 or more people and are located on 25 or more acres of land. The creation of such a designation would clear one hurdle to Christian Faith Center's plans to relocate from SeaTac to a 50-acre site in Federal Way just south of 336th Street near Pacific Highway South. The proposed site is located in a business park zone, where churches and schools are not allowed. Church officials requested that the city either change that rule or change the land to multi-family zoning, which allows churches. Instead, planners came up with the proposed mega-churches designation, believing big churches were more appropriate in business zones than residential zones because of the traffic they bring. Even if the mega-church designation gains approval, the church's construction is no certainty. Church officials would still need to submit building permits and go through the standard application process, said senior planner Margaret Clark. The approval of the new designation is also no given, despite some opponents' claims that the city has virtually promised to approve it. Not at all, Clark said. We have no idea what the Planning Commission will recommend. And it still goes to council, which doesn't always go along with the Planning Commission's recommendation. The city has received dozens of letters, both pro and con. In a Feb. 15 letter to the Planning Commission, Elizabeth, Bernice and Oiva Kari, Glenn and Mary Sawyer and Al and Sean D'Silva, who live near the proposed church site, urge the commission to reject any amendment or proposal permitting such a monstrosity as a mega-church. Opponents like Tom Frostad worry about traffic snarls. The Forest Lane Townhomes resident calls the existing traffic intense on 336th and Pacific Highway South. Loretta Morgan, a Northeast Tacoma resident, wonders how much more traffic the city can stand. I think what's going to have to happen is Federal Way will be an area people will avoid, she said. Others worry about the city's property tax loss if 50 acres are converted from business park to mega-church zoning because churches are tax-exempt. Still others say they're concerned about the demise of the wildlife that now inhabits the forest. Chris Carrel of the Friends of the Hylebos non-profit group says church officials approached him to ask about environmental sensitivity of the land, something that he calls unusual. Usually we have to make the calls, Carrel said. The group is reserving judgment on the church's project until it submits its application. If they can make a strong good faith effort to address the ecological concerns we'll support them, Carrel said. About 6,000 people attend the nondenominational, charismatic church. Members say the traffic impacts will not be as the bad as those generated by businesses. I think most, if not all of the activities at the church are being held at times where it's not a busy traffic time, said Terry Stanton, who's attended Christian Fatih Center for four years. Sundays. Wednesday night church. It's pretty much after the traffic rush. Church members also emphasize the positive nature of the church and strong morals of its parishioners, saying many members will likely choose to live, shop and volunteer in Federal Way. Seim said the church's presence could aid police efforts to clean up Pacific Highway South by providing a moral leader in the area. We have a school, a playground, the ability to (open) the facility when it's not in use of the church, Seim said. I think all the way around it's a positive influence more than negative. What's next? Federal Way Planning Commission members will discuss the proposed mega-churches and schools code amendment at 7 p.m. on Wednesday, April 4. The commission meets in Council Chambers at City Hall, 33530 First Way South. "

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