A Southern California church protesting a wine-growing association's expansion plan that could include an existing no-church zoning law appeared to have earned a victory on Wednesday as county officials decided to consider the construction of places of worship during the project's environmental impact reports phase.
At an all-day public hearing on the matter on Wednesday, the Temecula Valley Winegrowers Association pleaded with the Riverside County Planning Commission to continue the decade-old ordinance against the construction of churches and private schools in Temecula Valley Wine Country, saying their livelihood was at stake.
The Wine Country is a popular tourist destination that includes more than 30 vintners who along with the county plan to expand from 7,000 acres to more than 18,990 acres.
Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship Pastor Clark Van Wick, who also spoke during the public hearing, said the decision by the planning commission to allow churches to be a part of the environmental report process was the right one. As of Thursday, the commission had not made a public statement on its decision, according to the church's advocates.
"I'm very pleased with the decision that the commissioners are making," said Van Wick, whose church bought additional land in the Temecula Valley Wine Country in order to expand. "Now it's going into the EIR for research and evaluation … that's really the criteria for every project so we are glad that's going to be the criteria for our project (and churches that want to build)."
Putting the decision of whether a church can build or expand in the hands of officials whose main concern is whether zoning requirements such as safety, traffic, and environmental impact are met by a church or public school and not a question of allowing a place of worship or not is what is most important, he said.
"That's all we really wanted. Now it takes all the guesswork out of it. Now there are no emotions in it. Now it's just facts," Van Wick said. "It's a huge victory because now it takes all the emotion out of the argument of 'I don't want churches because this, that, or the other.' Now the experts look at it and say 'yes, there is a problem,' or 'no, there is not a problem' and then we can all be done with the issue."
More than 10 years ago, the no-church ordinance was added to existing zoning laws for the Wine Country by the county after Calvary Chapel Bible Fellowship (otherwise known as "The Barn") obtained a permit to remodel its church, according to the church's defenders.
Nearly two years ago, the church began seeking to obtain another permit to expand its church facilities and to build a small private school for grades K-8, and that is when the law prohibiting churches and their expansion in the area was discovered.
Temecula City Councilman Mike Naggar, who owns a land development firm and has been an advocate for the church, says it appears the commission is in the process of eliminating the no-church zone ordinance, but the final outcome is still in question.
"It seems that is the intent but the process has to play out. Getting them to this point was a big victory but we are far from churches being allowed at this time," Naggar said. "We are glad the commission saw the wisdom and obviousness that churches and schools would have little impact on the plan. Now it is a matter of legally defining that impact so as to comply with Environmental Law."