Canton ZBA rules in Christian Fellowship's favor to house offices in former Club building
By Adam Atkinson
North Country This Week
CANTON — The Christian Fellowship Center is one step closer towards using the building it purchased at 25 Court St., albeit only as offices for the time being.
The village’s Zoning Board of Appeals voted 4 to 1 at its meeting Monday, March 4 to reinterpret an earlier denial which previously prevented the organization from setting up professional offices there.Now the the ZBA’s decision in the CFC’s favor will go back to village Code Enforcement Officer Jeffrey Murray who will write a certificate of occupancy for the building. That certificate may still have to go before the village Planning Board for review depending on any potential changes needed to the building.
This reinterpretation is the first real victory for the CFC in a bid to relocate its Canton congregation and operation to the building they purchased in January.
The 25 Court St. lot is home to a historic Canton building first constructed in the 1800s as a gentlemen’s club that housed several popular local eateries over the years. The most recent restaurant there, The Club, closed in the summer of 2018 and was soon put up for sale. The CFC had a standing purchase offer on the lot for months before finally closing on the deal early this year for $310,000.
However, a use permit to hold religious services in the building was denied by Murray last year based on village zoning code. That denial was upheld by the ZBA after the church bought the property.
The former Club building is located in the village’s C1 zone which does not list religious organizations or churches as an allowed use.
The CFC has launched a lawsuit against the village of Canton claiming religious discrimination under federal law in the matter of the denial to use the building for services.
At the meeting Monday night, the ZBA members discussed the church’s request to use the building for office space with Canton CFC church leader Jamie Sinclair.
“A professional office, as defined as a professional office, is allowed in our C1 zone,” said ZBA chairman Conrad Stuntz.
“My question is, how do we define when it’s just a small gathering of 2 to 3 people discussing their faith versus and actual worship service in the church,” said board member Caitlin Gollinger. “In your religion it seems you discuss worshipping as just a part of life, of daily life and compared it to a Jewish person wearing a yamaka. So that raised some questions for me, as to how do we define this? Where is the line drawn between 2 or 3 people just meeting to discuss their faith or when is it a church service happening?”
“Right, when its an assembly versus just an office,” said Stuntz. “And that was the sticky part I think.”
Board member Sally McElhearn read from a letter Sinclair sent to the board where he stated that the CFC is submitting the office use application as a temporary measure and that the organization does hope to eventually use the building as a church with no use restrictions in place.
“He (Sinclair) has been very clear, the end goal is usage as a church,” Stuntz said.
Stuntz asked Sinclair if he intended to hold assemblies at the building in relation to the office use application.
“That’s not the current anticipation,” Sinclair said. He said he had initially submitted the application at the beginning of December to use the property for office space with the anticipation that the CFC would secure a use permit to hold religious services at 25 Court St. The office use permit would have allowed him to move into the building and have space with a desk to handle paperwork and meet with people as required in his daily duties as church leader.
“So it would be useful to go to a place to get computer work done, communications, prepare studies, meet with people. But I am hesitant to try to define the totality of how it could be used,” Sinclair said. “I think ‘offices’ there is kind of a general ‘this is what they are’ but you could have lunch with some of the staff or whatever, it’s somewhat robust. I’m not sure what zoning dictionaries would say, but kind of like all the uses you could imagine an office having.”
“I know you don’t want to commit, but you need to give us some sort of an idea so that we can base a decision,” said board member Debbie Gilson.
Stuntz asked if there would be assemblies held in the space.
“That was not and isn’t my attention, but also… I don’t want to end up holding a seven-person staff meeting and get accused of assembly, so I’m hesitant if that makes sense,” said Sinclair. “I don’t want to end up making you a definition that isn’t part of the definition.”
Sinclair told Stuntz that the CFC had no plans to do any major renovations at the building, but wants to use three existing offices on the second floor of the building for himself and volunteers initially, and other areas perhaps as storage and maybe a waiting area later.
“Its sounds like to me that the things you are talking about using it for right now, are not sounding like public assembly, or public worship. Does that agree with what you are trying to say?” Stuntz asked.
“Correct, that wasn’t the intention,” Sinclair said.
“That’s sounding like you are trying use it for what would be the office aspect of your business basically,” Stuntz said.
Sinclair agreed and said the CFC plans to continue renting worship space at the Best Western for the time being.
“Our charge is looking at basically, the application before us, 'Is the professional office allowed at this location?'” said Stuntz discussion the matter with board members. “And what we’re struggling with is, is it a professional office or is it the previous discussed case to have a church? That’s our struggle.”
After discussion, the board conducted a roll call vote. Gilson, Gollinger, Stuntz and board member Mike Snow were all in favor. McElhearn was opposed.
“I am thankful for the decision, and eager to move forward to move forward with the process,” said Sinclair after the meeting.