Like the torch carrying villagers storming the castle in the movie Frankenstein, some residents of Flowery Branch want to drive the “City of Light” project proposed by the international church La Luz Del Mundo out of town for good, and they want it to happen now.
Controversy surrounding the church’s proposal to build a mixed-use development in Flowery Branch that would include residential housing, worship facilities, retail space and a hotel escalated to a new level last week with the arrest in California of the church’s leader on a variety of sex trafficking and child pornography charges.
The Times editorial board
- Norman Baggs, general manager
- Shannon Casas, editor in chief
- Cheryl Brown
- David George
- Mandy Harris
- Brent Hoffman
- J.C. Smith
- Tom Vivelo
For some, the arrest confirmed previously held notions about the church, and provided evidence that the city should reject outright any such proposal church leadership might put forward.
The emotional response by opponents of the project is understandable, but the system doesn’t work that way.
No matter how anyone living in the area feels about La Luz Del Mundo as a religious organization, officials of Flowery Branch have to follow established procedures in dealing with any future rezoning requests involving the church and its development plans. To rush to judgment without doing so will open the city to potential litigation that could result in a federal judge deciding the fate of Flowery Branch rather than its elected leadership.
At this point, there has been no rezoning request submitted to the city to allow the construction of the LLMD mixed-use community. Until there is, there is nothing any city official or staffer can do to address community concerns, and any comments they might make at this point may well come back to haunt them.
What city leadership can’t afford to do is to make statements now that could be considered prejudicial in the future, when and if a rezoning request is made and works its way through the process to a hearing.
Those who want city leaders to stake out a position on the project before it is even submitted for consideration risk creating an indefensible legal stance if there is litigation at some point, which is highly likely.
Local residents can criticize the plan in whatever public format they might choose, but those appointed and elected to make decisions for the city government cannot do so at this point without running the risk of putting the city in a difficult legal position.
The city cannot make a rezoning decision based on the merits of the church itself.
Federal law specifically prohibits discrimination against religious institutions in zoning decisions. The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act says that governing entities must treat religious entities as they would nonreligious entities, and cannot discriminate against specific religious groups in zoning laws.
Nor can the city make a decision based on pending criminal charges that may not be resolved for years to come, and that may not prove pertinent to any zoning decision that may ultimately be needed.
What the city can and should do, if and when a request is made, is treat it like any other request from any other entity. That means requiring traffic studies to make sure roads in the area can handle a potential increase in motorists; reviewing water and sewer plans to make sure those systems are adequate to meet the need that would be generated by such a project; looking at all aspects of infrastructure as it would for any other developing entity; and reviewing the city’s comprehensive land use plan to make sure any such proposal complies with the guidelines in place to govern development in Flowery Branch.
What it cannot do is make a decision based solely on whether those living in the area want the church to come to town, nor on how many names are on a petition, or how big a crowd shows up to protest at a city council meeting.
Ours is a nation of laws, and there is a process in place to handle rezoning requests in Flowery Branch. If such a request is made, city officials will have to go through the process to reach a decision they can defend in court. And it can’t be one based on the size of the crowd carrying figurative torches outside city hall.
Regardless of whether the City of Light ever becomes a reality, La Luz Del Mundo still owns nearly 300 acres of land that is currently zoned for residential use. That land can be developed without any additional rezoning. LLDM may remain a neighbor in the city regardless of the fate of its mixed-use project.
If the city handles LLDM properly through its existing rezoning processes and in compliance with its land use plan, decisions made by local leaders will guide the process. But if the process is ignored in a rash of heated rhetoric and community pressure, the end result could be a federal judge determining what the future holds for Flowery Branch, and local residents paying legal fees and punitive damages for years to come.
Now is a time for patience in Flowery Branch, a time for thoughtful, rational governing, not knee-jerk emotional responses to lightning-rod issues. So far those in leadership positions in the city have done a great job of doing their jobs in regard to LLDM. We hope the residents who live there will let that continue to be the case.