My Life Church Denied Variance for Industrial Zone

My Life Church, which currently meets in Bedford, was unsuccessful in its effort to obtain a variance
to move to 136 A and B Harvey Road in Londonderry, property owned by Woodhaven Limited Partnership.
The church’s move was intended to bring it closer to major highways and to be centrally located for its members.

The property is zoned Industrial II and the church wanted to use 136 A as office space, which is allowed, and 136 B as a place to hold two worship services on Sunday mornings, when there would not be anyone using the adjacent offices and building. The property is not zoned for such use.

Attorney Patricia Panciocco represented Woodhaven Limited Partnership at the Wednesday, Feb. 21, Zoning Board of Adjustment meeting, and cited federal law that protects religious institutions from land use regulations.

Panciocco said at the time the worship services would be held, there would be no traffic, and the number of parking spaces at 139 exceeded the needs of the church. She said permitted uses in Industrial II property include “professional offices, public facilities, service establishments, warehouses and wholesale businesses. A lot of those are accompanied by heavy truck traffic.”

Panciocco added that not too long ago the church applied for a permit to do some minor interior work and the permit was refused because of the use issue. She said they were told the refusal was because a religious facility is not permitted in an Industrial II zone. Panciocco cited federal law that she said should trump local zoning law.

“There are certain aspects of the federal law that must be considered by the board in deliberating on the case,” she said, citing the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). She said the federal act was adopted in 2000 and provides enhanced First Amendment protections for religious uses.

Panciocco argued that the law protected the church from overly burdensome land use regulations. She said the law sought to have non-religious and religious groups treated equally. And while she said the zoning ordinance did not allow for religious facilities, that meant buildings like a church or synagogue, not religious activity within an already approved building.

According to board member Larry O’Sullivan, regardless of whether or not a church was a building, it was still an assembly of the general public in an Industrial II zone, and he said that presented safety issues that concerned him. “I mean there’s trucks, UPS, FedEx, Stonyfield trucks in and out of there at all hours every day of the week,” O’Sullivan said.

Chairman James Smith said the parking would be between the two buildings and that given the ‘U’ design of the street, it shouldn’t affect people using the buildings. Board member Neil Dunn expressed concern that a variance might affect future businesses that sought to use the area.
The board took a vote

on a “trial balloon basis,” restricting the church to use building B on Sunday mornings only and asked if that would meet its needs. Abigail Cyr, co-pastor with her husband, Joseph Cyr, said that if the church grew, they would need the space Saturday nights. Board member Jay Hooley withdrew his second of the motion, saying Sunday usage was what they had discussed and the statements made by Cyr changed that.

Another motion was made citing Sunday as the only day allowed for worship. It failed 2-2, with Jay Hooley and Dunn in favor and O’Sullivan and Smith opposed. In a tie vote, the motion fails.

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