A church pastor said this week he and his congregation are done parrying neighbors’ attacks against plans to build a Christian elementary school in the north Scottsdale desert.
The SonRise Community Church, just southeast of Scottsdale Road and Dixileta Drive, has repeatedly redrawn plans for its school campus, moving the main building out of a flood plain so as not to alter a wash.
A performance area intended to house children’s plays has been scrapped, bowing to neighbors’ concerns that loud noises and heavy traffic would accompany nighttime productions.
But this is it, said Jim Williams, the church’s senior pastor.
The Planning Commission is scheduled to hear SonRise’s application in the coming months. The commission only recommends to the City Council whether to approve an application.
Even if the commission again frowns on the school proposal, the church plans to ask that it be forwarded to the council, Williams said. "Regardless, we are going the distance."
SonRise is an independent Christian church affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention. Religion has been central to the tense debate between church leaders and the neighbors.
Williams said he believes the church property was chosen for SonRise by God.
In the middle are city officials, who have not issued an opinion on the revised plan.
So long as planning officials support the revision, no more major concessions are expected before the City Council considers the church’s proposal.
In September, the commission voted 6-1 against the application following five hours of sometimes angry testimony from congregation members and neighbors opposing the school. The complaints focused on drainage issues, traffic congestion and the school’s size.
"One issue I had was the size of the buildings didn’t seem to fit the enrollment they were discussing," said Dave Gulino, head of the planning commission. Schools use a formula to determine how much space is needed per student.
As SonRise projected enrolling only 200 kindergarten through eighth-grade students, the 33,000-square-foot school was far too big, Gulino said.
That rebuff sent SonRise leaders back to work, said Mike Allen, a congregation member who has assisted the church in altering its school plans. In addition to moving the main building, they also shrunk the school by about 7,000 square feet.
Despite the plan changes, an independent analysis paid for by the city and the church found that traffic is likely to be a problem unless a traffic signal is established at the school’s entrance. Allen said SonRise would build one if Scottsdale required it.
Lynne LaGarde, SonRise’s attorney, has cited the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act as providing the church an additional right to build. The act, signed into law by President Bill Clinton, links religious institutions’ right to practice their faith with their right to build.
The city attorney’s office has researched the act, said Deborah Robberson, deputy city attorney. "We’re definitely aware of the law and the cases that have come from it," she said.
SonRise stands on land zoned for low-density residential and the property should stay that way, some neighbors have argued.
"We moved out here because it’s sort of a more rural area," said Kent Hansen, who lives near the church and signed a petition opposing SonRise’s plans.