City: Church zoning law now too broad
A city official warns that a new state law prohibiting cities from restricting where churches can be located may have some unintended consequences.
"I don't believe the legislators understood what they did," said Greg Wilkinson, city of Yuma administrator.
Wilkinson said he understands that the Legislature's intention was to relax restrictions on churches, but called the new law "disappointing."
The new law bars cities from using zoning codes or land-use rules to restrict church locations.
The real issue with the law, Wilkinson said, is that churches now aren't restricted by anything. "There's no longer any way for cities to control the placement or activities of a church."
He said a major concern is that someone could set up a church in a house next door to any resident and have loud music late at night or early in the morning or have other unrestricted activities.
"I don't know if that is affecting Yuma," Wilkinson said, "but that's already happening in the Phoenix area. Churches are springing up with disruptive activities."
He said most churches try to be good neighbors, "but that 5 percent who don't could really impact citizens."
For example, he said, there's a Church of Sex in the Phoenix area "that is raising all kinds of issues."
"Zoning codes exist to protect property owners, to protect people and property," said Wilkinson. "The Legislature has opened the door wide so no zoning codes apply to churches."
The new law, sponsored by Rep. Steven Yarbrough, R-Chandler, requires that churches be treated like other commercial establishments.
The measure reportedly was a direct result of a Yuma case in which a church was denied a conditional use permit by the city's Planning and Zoning Commission to relocate downtown. The Centro Familiar Cristiano Buenas Nuevas Church had purchased the former JCPenney building on Main Street with the intention of moving there.
Opposition was particularly strong from other property owners in the downtown district who asked the city to stop the church because they felt it didn't fit in with redevelopment plans for the area, including retail, residential, governmental and entertainment uses.
One argument was that the church's location on Main Street would inhibit future efforts to attract restaurants and other entertainment providers. That is because a state law requires bars and liquor stores to be at least 300 feet from churches.
However, Arizona law states that the 300-foot restriction does not apply to restaurants, hotels/motels, special events, government or fenced playing areas of a golf course.
An appeal by the church is still in the court system. Both sides presented their arguments to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeal on April 15 and are waiting for an opinion by the judges, said Greg Hyland, Yuma city spokesman.