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A Growing Church Leaves Dumfries Officials Questioning What Should be Allowed in Town’s Business Districts

By Uriah Kiser July 30, 2014 1:39 pm

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DUMFRIES, Va. – Last year, Grace Church donated 13,000 pounds of food to the community through its “bag of hope” food pantry.

They did it all from their home located in Dumfries since 2007. Inside their worship center, which once served as a commercial mailing and packaging center in the heart of the town, is a large sanctuary and stage lined with musical instruments, a community daycare center with classrooms, a café, and a TV production facility the church uses to spread the words of its pastor, Bishop Derek Grier.

The church has come a long way since its humble beginnings in 1998 when it met in the auditorium of C.D. Hylton High School in Woodbridge.

And now, after it has applied for and won approval to occupy space in two buildings originally meant for commercial business, and after the church has spent “significant” money to market itself, its location, and by extension the Town of Dumfries on local radio and TV, some in the congregation are wondering if they should stay.

“Some members of our trustees’ board have asked ‘if the town doesn’t want to us to be here then why are we here,” said Rick Watson, a Deacon at the church.

Parking lot problems

After watching its numbers drop to about 30 members after it moved its services from the high school to Dumfries, Grace Church’s congregation has exploded to more than 2,500 members who regularly attend services on Sundays or Wednesdays. Because they’ve outgrown their parking lot, three shuttle vans are used to ferry church goers from nearby parking lots to the church at 1006 Williamstown Drive, just off Fraley Boulevard.

Town officials are now taking notice of the church’s crowded parking situation and noted the church once conformed to the town’s parking rules but, as of late, no longer has enough space to put parishioner’s automobiles.

That, town officials say, breaks the terms of a conditional use permit, or CUP, which the church must obtain from the town. It’s a permit that allows the church to exist inside a district originally zoned for business.

This, and namely the town’s willingness to hand out CUPs, has one Town Council member riled.  “We’re handing out CUPs like business licenses. Why is planning commission looking at this and [recommending] approval when they don’t even belong in this district?” asked Dumfries Town Councilman Cliff Brewer. “We’ve got 26 churches in town, a whole lotta religion in this town going on, but none of those are a by-right use.”

Earlier this year, the Town Council issued a CUP to Grass Roots Christian Fellowship, a church that had been meeting in Stafford County. The special permit made it possible for the church’s congregation to obtain space inside the Elwye Center office building on Fraley Boulevard to hold services and activities.

Worshiping in a business district

Some business owners urged the Town Council to deny the permit, saying their place of business should only be used for business. And they argued that once a CUP is issued for a property, the permit carries over even if the church closes – which many churches do after their first three years, said Watson.

Grace Church has obtained at least three CUPs for their operation – two for a sanctuary and youth center at 17889 Fraley Boulevard, and for their current worship center next door at 1006 Williamstown Drive. After moving their worship center across the street to Williamsstown Drive, the church now only maintains its youth center at 17889 Fraley Boulevard.

Church provides needed services to community

Whether residents believe in god or not, Grace Church says their food donation services, youth services program similar to what one would find at a Boys and Girls Club, and increased business at nearby restaurants from hungry church goers, are positives reasons that outweigh the negative.

“With 4,000 members on our books and 2,500 who attend services here, literally half the town is here on Sunday. We have created a destination for the town,” said Watson.

Dumfries officials last December recognized  the church by issuing a resolution commending the church for the work that it does, and for being one of the top 100 fastest-growing churches in the U.S.

Town Mayor Jerry Foreman says he’ll spend the next four years working to attract business to the town. He voted to approve the CUP for Grace Church, and going forward he suggested Dumfries review the application process for CUPs for any organization applying for one, as well as work more closely with those applying for them.

“We’ve approved CUPs and the property owner hasn’t even been in the audience at all,” said Foreman, who added the permits should not be permanent in the event the organization moves or closes.

Two more churches have applied for CUPs, and town staff are reviewing the applications. The Town Council unanimously voted to review all of the town’s CUP policies and procedures.

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