After more than two months of third party mediation failed to produce an agreement, Vineyard Christian Church and neighbors who oppose the church’s plans to erect a new building next to the church presented their final arguments to the Oak Park Zoning Board of Appeals (ZBA) last Wednesday night.

The church, located at Jackson and Wesley, is seeking to tear down a single family home it owns next to the church and replace it with an 11,815-square-foot building which would house church offices, religious education facilities, and fellowship space. The church bought the single family home at 707 S. Wesley in 2005 for $462,000. The proposed new building requires three variances because it exceeds village requirements for lot coverage, rear setback, and open space.

Richard Baker, the attorney for Vineyard, argued that the church needs the additional space to serve its congregation.

“This property is sanctuary-rich and support-space poor,” said Baker of the existing space. “In its present format, it is functionally obsolete. The church at this point is bursting at the seams.”

In an attempt to satisfy the concerns of neighbors, the church made some minor adjustments in its plans for the new building.

The church increased the rear setback by four feet so that the building will not abut the alley. It also slightly reduced the size of the second floor of the proposed building and said that it would use translucent glass in the upper floor south facing windows to protect the privacy of neighbors.

But the objecting neighbors were not satisfied with the changes.

“The revised drawings represent very small reductions,” said Rick Kuner, a former village trustee and one of the neighbors opposing Vineyard’s request for variances. Kuner told the board that Vineyard had not met any of the seven standards that village code requires to be met before a variance is granted.

“The building is too large for the site,” Kuner told the ZBA. “Vineyard wants to expand at the expense of the neighborhood.”

Kuner and other neighbors have expressed concerns about traffic and congestion that the new building would cause as well as the size of the proposed building. They claim the building would alter the character of their quiet residential neighborhood.

Much of the final argument was devoted to legal analysis.

Baker argued that the ZBA must consider the federal Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA). He argued that zoning requirements that pose a “substantial burden” on religious practice are not allowed under RLUIPA.

Baker said the church could not satisfy the village’s code requirements and design a building that will meet its needs, and therefore it needs the variances.

“We cannot build a building with any sort of functionality within the code,” said Baker. “Adequate space is a core first amendment right.”

However David Butman, an objecting neighbor who is also a lawyer, told the ZBA that RLUIPA only requires that religious and non-religious land uses be treated the same.

He argued that the lack of fully adequate space for offices and other ancillary uses does not impose a “substantial burden” on Vineyard. He noted that Vineyard is not asking to expand its sanctuary and still has adequate space in its sanctuary for those who attend its services.

Butman argued that it is the church’s own fault if it cannot design an adequate building on the property that meets village requirements.

“They unilaterally purchased too little land for what they need,” said Butman. “That’s the harsh reality.”

Butman also said that a “substantial burden” means that zoning requirements make the practice of your religion effectively impractical, which, he said, is not the case with Vineyard.

The ZBA is scheduled to deliberate and make a decision in the case at its next meeting on Dec. 6, scheduled for the Oak Park Village Hall Council Chambers at 7:30 p.m.

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