Neighbors sue church, zoning board
October 3, 2007
ASPEN Neighbors of Christ Episcopal Church in the West End want a Planning and Zoning Commission decision to go to a higher authority.Frustrated that they cant appeal the recent P&Z vote granting a setback variance for a planned addition to the 1960s-era building, residents took the matter to the only judicial body that will hear them: Pitkin County district court.I would prefer that it be called what it is, which is an appeal of a P&Z decision for a variance, said Steven Falender, who joined his wife, Debra, and neighbors Janice and Charles Collins to file a civil complaint against the P&Z, the city of Aspen, Christ Episcopal Church and Chris Bendon, director of the citys Community Development Department.Falender said that when commissioners approved the setback variance, they told neighbors they would have ample opportunity to appeal the decision, but the city attorney later denied them.Its disappointing that if we believe [the P&Z] acted improperly or in [error], that there is no way to appeal, Falender said. We want to have the decision reviewed again, and unfortunately, the only place we can do that is in district court.Falender said the conditions for granting a variance are stringent, that he believes the proposed renovation does not meet those requirements, and city officials are not following the code.Church officials held an open house to talk with neighbors about the planned renovation, and neighbors support the overall project, Falender said.There are no questions that the church shouldnt grow or expand or make itself better. Thats not the issue, Falender said. But there are certain limitations.The 12-foot expansion at the rear of the church, which many call the lunch box for its unique shape, encroaches on a setback in an alley, Falender said. Were the proposed extension reduced to 7 feet, the project would meet code while still allowing for a significant addition to the church, Falender noted. Staying within existing setbacks would affect the lot coverage ratio, but Falender supports a variance for lot coverage, he said.And hed like his day in court. Weve been trying to talk to them without results at this point, Falender said of church officials. They have not been willing to make any compromises at all in this process.Good setbacks; good neighborsRev. Bruce McNab of Christ Episcopal Church lives in the rectory adjacent to the church and said he just hopes to be a good neighbor.Planners reduced the original size of the renovation by 500 feet to preserve large trees in front of the church, McNab said, and the overall goal is to bring the existing structure originally built in 1962 up to fire safety code with sprinklers and more space for people with disabilities. Our church is quite small, and the aisles are very narrow, McNab said. We want to make the building totally accessible.In the end, the church wont have more seating, but better access for existing seating and improvements in the basement will mean a more private meeting space, McNab said.Were not really adding a whole lot of space, McNab said. Initial objections to the project were over more cars and people, but McNab stressed that there will be no additional activity at the church. He also said hes talked with his neighbors at length.Ive tried my best to be as helpful and thoughtful to them as possible, McNab said, adding that Falender and other neighbors had every opportunity to speak during P&Z hearings, but both sides dug in over the setback variance. As the leader of a tax-exempt institution, McNab feels a moral obligation to provide a safe, accessible space for parishioners and activities such as 12-step meetings, he said.We want to be able to do that well in a way that Christ Church has done all the way back to the mining days, McNab said. We want it to be a service to the community and continue to be a good neighbor.Its really a question of whether the city acted properly in granting them that variance, and we believe they didnt, Falender said.Charles Agar’s e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.