The Roman Catholic Diocese of Helena wants the City of Hamilton to take a step back in its decision-making process on the future of one of the town’s most historic churches.
In a letter sent to the city this week, the diocese’s attorney asked city officials to reconsider its opposition to a parking variance that is part of a conditional use permit needed to dismantle the 122-year-old St. Francis of Assisi Church and replace it with a larger and more accessible building.
The church wants city zoning and planning staff to write two supplemental reports. One report would analyze a federal law that protects religious landowners from substantial burdens created by municipal zoning rules. The second would consider the church’s proposal to reduce potential parking needs by ensuring the buildings on the church campus aren't used at the same time.
The city’s Board of Adjustments is set to reconvene Monday, Jan. 13, at 5:30 p.m. at the Hamilton City Courthouse to continue taking public comment on the diocese’s request for the necessary permits to start its proposed project.
The board heard three hours of testimony last month on the church's request for a conditional use permit that includes three variances. The city’s planning and zoning staff report recommends support for two of the variances but said the church’s proposal to meet parking needs was insufficient.
Neighbors and others who want the historic building protected say the proposed change would affect the neighborhood’s character, destroy its historic fabric and affect people living nearby.
In a Jan. 6 letter, the diocese’ attorney, Michael Montgomery, asked the City of Hamilton to prepare the two supplemental staff reports.
St. Francis Church building committee member Sonny LaSalle said the church’s hope is the city will review the two documents and change its recommendation on the parking variance.
LaSalle said the city’s current requirement of 200 spaces is not physically possible without tearing down the old parish center that now houses the MAPS program. LaSalle said that the staff recommendation took into account the amount of parking required if all three buildings were holding large events at the same time.
The proposed joint use agreement would ensure that doesn’t happen, which would lessen the need for additional parking places, he said.
The church also wants the city to take a hard look at federal rules adopted in 2000 under The Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act. The act protects religious landowners from substantial burdens created by municipal zoning rules.
“Essentially, RLUIPA requires the City of Hamilton to use the 'least restrictive means' of protecting a compelling governmental interest,” Montgomery wrote.
If the zoning board opts to deny the permit or variances, Montgomery said the federal law places the burden on the city of Hamilton to show it is furthering a governmental interest and doing so by the least restrictive means possible in order to not infringe on the church’s constitutional right to exercise its religious beliefs on its property.
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“I know this will take time and my client is not opposed to delaying a final decision by the zoning board until these legal issues are fully and fairly presented to the zoning board,” Montgomery wrote.
Attorney Roy Andes of Missoula represents the Southside Historic Preservation Committee that opposes the construction of a new church building at the site.
In a Jan. 8 press release, Andes called the church’s claims the City of Hamilton is out of compliance with federal law is a “thinly veiled threat of a federal lawsuit” if the city’s zoning board doesn’t give the church everything it wants in its zoning application.
“The church’s RLUIPA assertions are frivolous,” Andes wrote. “The church cannot possibly prove it would be ‘substantially burdened in its religious exercise’ by the denial of its conditional use permit.”
Andes said the main reason the federal law doesn’t apply is that because no one has suggested that St. Francis should be denied a church on the site.
“It has one now,” he wrote. “Neither the Southside Historic Preservation Committee nor anyone else has urged that the use of the existing church be stopped.”
If the permit and variances are denied, the use of the church at that location could continue, Andes said.
“The church’s own literature admits that if it wanted to, it could renovate the historic St. Francis building and keep using it,” he wrote. “Furthermore, a bigger church isn’t needed. The church hasn’t grown; its membership has declined.
“So the new question now before the zoning board is whether it will be intimidated by threats of federal lawsuits or whether it will make decisions based on what’s best for the citizens of Hamilton,” Andes wrote.
LaSalle said Andes’ statement at the first hearing that if the current building is torn down, the Diocese would lose its property right to use the land for church services is wrong.
“We believe that’s totally in error,” LaSalle said. “We don’t think that he’s deliberately trying to be inaccurate, but we think he’s wrong.”
The information about the federal law was something recently presented to church members.
“It came up since the last meeting,” LaSalle said. “We believe that it’s something else to add to our quiver as a rationale to approve the permit and variances. … Whether the board will decide Monday night or postpone it further, I don’t have a clue. It would be wonderful if they give us approval. We believe the plaintiffs will then move it back into court and we can finally get a decision.”