FLOWERY BRANCH — Lakeland Baptist Church Pastor Brian Rhodes came to the Flowery Branch City Council meeting Wednesday morning with five members from his church at his side, and they all left disappointed.
Rhodes attended the City Council work session in an effort to move his church services from a remodeled residence at 7334 Williams Road in Flowery Branch to a building at 5556 Atlanta Highway, also in Flowery Branch.
"We basically asked for permission to have access to the building to rent it from the owner for worship services," Rhodes said.
But the council denied his request.
Due to a zoning ordinance current council members passed unanimously this summer, no new churches in Flowery Branch may operate on property zoned highway business. The 5556 Atlanta Highway location to which Rhodes is attempting to move his 47-member church is zoned highway business. The current building housing Lakeland Baptist Church is zoned agriculture.
Rhodes started Lakeland Baptist Church with 17 people in his living room in January 2006. As the congregation grew, it moved to a 3,000-square-foot building on Williams Road and held its grand opening service on March 12, 2006.
With his church expanding nearly three-fold since 2006, Rhodes said that he would like to move the congregation, the majority of whom are Flowery Branch residents, to the more than 10,000-square-foot building on Atlanta Highway to provide more space for kids programs and a larger sanctuary to accommodate three services each week.
"But after today, it doesn’t look real probable," Rhodes said. "I would just like to see (the Flowery Branch City Council) allow churches the ability to come in and rent space if there’s space available.
"I feel like the zoning restrictions on churches hinder the freedom of worship. It puts a restriction, or a limitation, on the places that you can have worship services. And I don’t think that’s fair. I think it’s a total contradiction of the First Amendment right that states our freedom to have public worship service."
Flowery Branch Planning Director James Riker told Rhodes during the work session that Lakeland Baptist could be able to hold worship services in the building on Atlanta Highway if the owner of the building, Clarice Bailey, filed an application for it to be rezoned as office professional.
Rhodes said that he would not be willing to ask Bailey to go to the trouble of rezoning the building which houses other businesses.
Although four members of the council maintained their support for the zoning ordinance which encompasses numerous restrictions for several different zones within the city, one council member said the ordinance was disgusting.
"The part I think is disgusting is the other four council members will not respond to the situation, and they do not listen to the public," Jan Smith said. "We write the laws, so we can also change them. I think we’ve made an error in the law, and I think we should change it."
Smith said she believed that the ordinance inappropriately denies or specifies where a church can be located, and violates the freedom of religion in our country. She added that she agreed with the new zoning ordinance as a whole in regard to its specifications on residential, business and industrial zoning, but did not agree with the area regarding the banning of churches from highway business zones.
"I’m very familiar with churches being located on highways in retail centers and business strip malls," Smith said. "It’s a very common thing in Gwinnett County, Hall County and metro-Atlanta and has been for decades."
Smith cited Blackshear Place Baptist Church, located on Atlanta Highway and Mundy Mill Road in Oakwood, as an example of a church operating in close proximity to a highway.
And Rhodes’ church isn’t the first to approach the Flowery Branch City Council asking for permission to relocate within city limits and to be denied.
Last year, the Rock Ministries, a growing church that sought relocation within Flowery Branch city limits, was not allowed to transfer to a building on Atlanta Highway. The church is now established at 5818 Atlanta Highway, just south of Flowery Branch city limits.
"They wanted to go into the tech building on Atlanta Highway, and that was even before this zoning was passed, but the council felt like that ... would take away from our business income and there were definitely not enough parking spaces and they wanted to use that building five nights a week," Flowery Branch Mayor Diane Hirling said.
"I felt bad for Pastor Rhodes, I really did," Hirling said. "Because I know he’s only trying to do the right thing, and he probably felt that building suited his needs even though it wasn’t in the right area of town."
Hirling said she believed the original intent of the zoning ordinance was to keep commercial business and retail near highway areas, and to not use those particular buildings for churches or residences.
"We’re not trying to keep churches out of the city, we’re just trying to get them to comply with zoning laws," Hirling said. "It’s just a matter of the area that they chose to be in."
Riker and Hirling encouraged Rhodes to meet with the city staff to discuss potential locations for Lakeland Baptist Church in Flowery Branch. And Rhodes said that he would be willing to meet with the city staff if they would be willing to help him find a space for his young church.
"Of course we want churches here," the Flowery Branch Mayor added. "As we grow, we’ll want more and more churches, they just have to be in the proper zoning area."