Cities debate whether houses of worship belong in industrial areasby Curtis Gilbert, Minnesota Public Radio
ST. PAUL, Minn. — Prior Avenue is home to warehouses, a recycling plant and a Menards. But behind the rows of semi-trailers is a house of worship, Living Word Church, which moved into an abandoned print shop in 2006.
"We had looked around for places we could not afford," senior pastor Lesley Ford said. "We looked at places that were too small, and God showed us this place here."
The 11-acre site has plenty of parking and a 329,000-square-foot building, Ford said, "a territory that we are to occupy and to possess."
The St. Paul Planning Commission is considering revisions to its zoning ordinance, and one of the proposed changes would prohibit future churches from opening in such areas.
Other communities also are grappling with whether to allow religious groups to locate in industrial centers, among them the Minneapolis suburb of St. Anthony Village.
The St. Anthony City Council this week rejected the Abu Huraira Islamic Center's application to open in an industrial part of the city. City officials say their decision was about land use, but the Muslim group alleges discrimination. That has prompted an inquiry by the U.S. Department of Justice.
Officials in other cities will be watching how the dispute plays out. Among them will be St. Paul, where Living Word is one of two churches located in parts of the city zoned for industrial use. If city officials decided to prevent religious groups from moving into the areas, Living Word would be grandfathered in under the proposal, but Ford still opposes it.
"Wherever there's people, as far as I'm concerned, God and his word should be there," he said.
St. Paul won't decide the issue for months. But planning director Donna Drummond said the city wants to make sure it has enough land set aside businesses that create good-paying jobs.
"One of the things we've looked at is whether or not there are certain uses that are currently permitted in industrial zones that we should consider eliminating," she said.
Doing so would preserve land classified as industrial zones for businesses that create jobs, she said.
Those zones are designed for factories, heavy trucks and rumbling railroad cars — the kinds of things that would bother other landowners if they were in residential neighborhoods or on commercial streets. They're also the kinds of things that add to a city's economic vitality, an argument St. Anthony Village made this week when it denied a permit for the Abu Huraira Islamic Center.
"We believe light industrial uses should stay light industrial uses," City Manager Mark Casey said.
Casey says less than 5 percent of the land in St. Anthony Village is zoned for industrial use, and the City Council didn't want to see it eroded. Last October, the council rejected an application from a Christian church that wanted to worship in another industrial-zoned part of the city.
But Ali Giarushi, who served as a spokesman for the Muslim group, is not convinced.
"Clear discrimination," he said.
Giarushi works for the imams who want to start the Islamic center. He has helped arrange similar projects all over the state.
As raising money for them is often a challenge, he always offers his clients this advice:
"Look for a building — one that can generate income," Giarushi said. "Use a portion of it, and the rest of it use as an investment."
The former Medtronic building was perfect. It had lots of office space that the center could lease to tenants to help cover the mortgage.
That's another reason religious groups consider industrial areas when they want to expand their congregations.
Every city handles industrial zones a little differently. Some try to restrict them to mostly manufacturing. Others treat them as a catch-all area where most uses are permitted. Some ban churches. Others, like Minneapolis, allow them everywhere except for areas reserved for heavy industrial uses like power plants and scrap yards.
Even if St. Paul decides to restrict religious institutions from industrial areas, the Living Word Church will be allowed to stay on Prior Avenue. It could run into difficulties if it ever wanted to expand there, but with more than 300,000 square-feet available, it has plenty of room to grow.
- All Things Considered, 06/15/2012, 5:20 p.m.