News

Green light for Christian Faith Center

By ERICA HALL

Staff writer

In the end, a federal law protecting churches paved the way for Christian Faith Center to be allowed to build a church in Federal Way, but city officials said the church had met the necessary development requirements.

The City Council's approval of the megachurch project Tuesday was met with brief applause from church supporters and members in the council chambers at City Hall. Several smiled broadly as they left before the council's next item of business.

The council's decision directs staff to prepare an ordinance for the next council meeting. If approved, the ordinance will be forwarded to the following meeting for final approval.

Christian Faith Center submitted plans five years ago to build a 200,000-square-foot church and a 100,000-square-foot school on 50 acres of property south of South 336th Street between Interstate 5 and Pacific Highway South. Plans include a 5,000-seat sanctuary, school, coffee shop, book store, chapel and administrative offices. Site plans include parking and ball fields.

As part of the development of the site, Christian Faith Center will make about $6 million in traffic and environmental mitigations, including stormwater treatment at the east basin of one of the wetlands and ongoing monitoring on the site –– both of which go "beyond the (city's) standards for quantity and quality," Public Works director Carey Roe said.

Traffic mitigations include sidewalk improvements, lighting and landscaping, signalizations and the church's share of traffic impacts where the city already was planning street improvements.

Roe said the project is the biggest, most time-consuming project in the city's history, and includes the most significant amount of mitigation.

All the mitigations must be completed before the church can receive a certificate of occupancy, with the exception of two intersections. Lori Michaelson, a senior planner with the city and the lead on the project, told council members the project has to be finished within five years of approving the development agreement.

Councilwoman Linda Kochmar recognized the work that went into Christian Faith Center's project.

"This is probably one of the most thoroughly researched, analyzed and investigated projects we've had before us," she said.

But Councilman Jim Ferrell said the issue for him had more to do with constitutional protections than mitigations or opponents' arguments against the church.

"There is nothing more fundamental in the history of this country than the free exercise of religion and speech," he said, adding the purpose of a recently interpreted federal law was "to prevent cities from preventing or taking burdensome action against churches or religious institutions."

That act, called the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, says a government can't consider many factors it considers with other large developments in deciding whether to allow a church to be built in its jurisdiction. Government only can weigh whether there would be a compelling interest –– public safety, for example –– to rule against the church.

"Economic impact, loss of revenue, even traffic is not considered a compelling state interest," Ferrell said. "I'm a little uncomfortable with asking Christian Faith Center to get up here and explain themselves. They shouldn't have to do that."

Councilman Eric Faison agreed, adding he wanted to "commend Christian Faith Center for being patient with us and working with us through this."

Spokesman Morgan Llewellyn told the council that Christian Faith Center employs about 120 people as administrators and teachers in the church and the schools. He said church officials don't anticipate hiring more people until the school needs them.

There are about 6,000 members each month at each service, he said, and about 1,200 member families call Federal Way home.

Though the church and school will be exempt from property taxes once they're built, city finance director Iwen Wang said Christian Faith Center will continue to pay property taxes until construction is complete. All construction is subject to sales tax, which she estimated would be about $85,000 for each $10 million spent on construction.

Wang estimated the church and school would pay about $16,000 a year in utility taxes and $4,000 a year in sales taxes from items like books and tapes at the bookstore and coffee at the espresso stands.

Ferrell lauded Christian Faith Center's efforts to get permission from the city to go ahead with the project.

"Christian Faith Center has made a tremendous show of good faith with the dedication of $6 million for the mitigation. It's been a lengthy process for them," he said. "I think they'll be good neighbors. I hope the community welcomes them here."

Opponents of the project, including many people living near the project site, have claimed that traffic in the area will become worse from churchgoers.

Staff writer Erica Hall: 925-5565, ehall@fedwaymirror.com

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