As another lengthy hearing before the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals drew to a close last week, Richard Martens, counsel to the ZBA, issued this plea to Vineyard Church and the neighbors who are fighting the church’s proposed addition.
“I would just encourage the parties to sit down and talk,” Martens said. He was hoping the church, located at the corner of Jackson Boulevard and Wesley Avenue, and the neighbors could come to some sort of agreement that would spare the ZBA from making a controversial decision that might lead to protracted litigation.
“This is a very complicated case that we have here,” said Martens. “Litigation is not always the best alternative. Some people think it solves a lot of problems. It seems to me that it creates a lot of problems.”
As of Monday afternoon, it was unclear whether any additional talks between the neighbors and the church would take place. Martens is hopeful talks can help resolve the case that the ZBA has been considering since April.
“This is not something we’ve done before,” said Martens. “But it’s something that I’ve seen prove to be useful in other situations.”
Vineyard Senior Pastor David Frederick said he is willing to talk again with his neighbors.
“We’re quite open to that,” Frederick said Friday. “I’ve told our lawyer to talk to their lawyer, Mr. [David] Butman, to start something. “I feel like we’ve tried to work with them. We’ll continue. I’m very open to talking.”
But by Monday afternoon no talks had been arranged and Butman said he had not heard from Richard Baker, the lawyer representing Vineyard.
“I have not received any calls as yet,” Butman said Monday afternoon. Butman who lives a half block from the church is a commercial litigator for the Loop law firm of Lord, Bissell & Brook. He is representing the neighbors’ case strictly in his capacity as a neighbor and is not being paid for his services.
Butman said he is not sure if talks would help at this point.
“There is no point in doing anything if there is no compromise on Vineyard’s part,” said Butman. “We have to see if there are any concessions we can make on our part. The village would have to play a prominent role.”
Vineyard is asking for three variances that would allow them to tear down a house at 707 Wesley Ave., which the church bought in 2005 for $462,000 after making an unsolicited offer. Vineyard is requesting three variances that would allow it to build a 12,000-square-foot addition to the church, to be used for religious education and provide the church with meeting and office space.
Vineyard has occupied the gothic-style church since 1997. About 400 people attend church there in two Sunday services according to Frederick. Neighbors have expressed concern that the addition will make worse an always congested parking situation and alter the character of the quiet residential block. They have also expressed concerns about how large Vineyard will become, noting the village has estimated that the new addition could accommodate 2,114 people for purposes of entrance and egress.
But Frederick testified last week that the church does not have adequate space for its current needs. One pastor at the church works out of a closet, Frederick said.
“Every room we have is doing double or triple duty,” he noted. “We don’t have enough rooms. We have three people in a 10 x 10 room. That is our office.”
The ZBA will listen to closing arguments on July 12 and is expected to make a decision then. They are considering legal briefs addressing the issue of whether zoning requirements are different for churches than other property owners and whether Oak Park’s zoning requirements place a substantial burden on the free exercise of religion which is protected by the 1st amendment to the Constitution.
“It’s an interesting constitutional question, and it would take a long time to resolve,” said Martens.