A heated dispute between an Old Palo Alto church and some of its neighbors moved toward a shaky resolution Wednesday night, when the city's Planning and Transportation Commission debated, criticized and ultimately supported granting the church a permit to retain its tenants.
The commission voted 5-1 to recommend approving a "conditional use permit" for the church at 305 N. California Ave., thus allowing it to function as a "community center" with secular uses. But in doing so, the commission broke sharply from a proposal made by city planning staff, which sought to limit the traffic and noise problems caused by church tenants by tightly regulating the types of tenants allowed, the hours during which events can be held at the church and the number of people who can attend those events.
As such, the proposal approved by the commission is unlikely to appease many neighbors who have grown increasingly angry and frustrated in recent years about the secular activities, which have been on the rise as the church's membership has declined.
The conditional use permit was an attempt to resolve a conflict sparked two years ago when the city's code-enforcement officers concluded that many of these rentals run afoul of the zoning code and began cracking down on the tenants. One major tenant, the New Mozart School of Music, was forced to leave the church last year and has since moved to the College Terrace Centre development on El Camino Real.
Jill Cooper, a therapist who treated at-risk youth, had also left, as have the various folk-dancing groups that had periodically met at the church.
The departures leave the nonprofit group iSing, a music school for girls, as the largest group renting space from the church. The church is also used once a week by the psychiatrist Joellen Werne, a Persian language class, a Persian string instrument class and the Apple Circle Women's Choir.
The conditional use permit was remarkable for two reasons. First, unlike most permits of this sort, it does not require any physical changes to the church. Rather, it would allow the church to keep its existing tenants and add a few conditions to ensure major events are not disruptive.
It is also unusual in that neither the church nor the concerned neighbors really support it, though for drastically different reasons. For the neighbors, the permit would effectively sanction the very uses that have diminished their quality of life. The church, for its part, sees the permit requirement as "extraneous," said the Rev. Rick Mixon, pastor of First Baptist Church.
"We think we should be allowed to be a church, functioning the way a church realistically functions in 2018," Mixon said.
Dozens of residents, representing both sides of the debate, attended the commission meeting to make their case. Many praised iSing and urged the commission to support its continued operations at the church.
"We really value the chance to get to know the other families that are here in Palo Alto," said Cari Templeton, whose daughter takes classes at iSing. "This is one of the few activities that remain local and it's extremely important that we be allowed to have enrichment programs that are local. I don't want to be driving around the Peninsula, trying to find an activity for my child."
Others argued that the single-family neighborhood wasn't designed for the types of commercial activities that the church now hosts. The church's eight parking spots are inadequate for the large number of cars that come to the neighborhood for iSing, and the uptick in traffic is a hazard to the popular school commute route, critics said.
The loudest complaints pertained to noise. Mahendra Ranchod, who lives near the church, described herself and her neighbors as "victims" of sounds emanating from the church.
"What is music to their ears is noise to us," Ranchod wrote to the commission. "Imagine how this feels when it happens day after day after day, each day unpredictable, each day delivering a new barrage of noise. It's enough to make one feel distraught."
Loy Martin, who lives next to the church, told the commission that each of the church's tenants fail to understand the harm they're causing.
"They're not harming people just in themselves, but it's the aggregate, the cumulative use of tenant after tenant causing safety problems, causing parking problems and creating a level of noise that really we just can't get away from."
iSing has already taken some steps to address the neighbors' concerns, including monitoring traffic during classes and sending regular reminders to parents not to park illegally, said Jennah Delp-Somers, co-founder of iSing. She told the residents in the audience that she wants to do everything in her power to win their support, including moving some of the larger events to other city facilities.
But she also noted that the number of people who have been complaining about First Baptist Church "pales in comparison to the number of people who support the programs in the church."
Jessica Rothenberg-Aalami, board chair at iSing, blamed the neighbors for spreading misinformation and urged the commission to base its decision on the facts. She noted that of 39 complaints submitted to the city, 27 came from the same six residences, who repeated the exact same grievances over and over again. The church, she said, has already worked tirelessly to remedy these grievances.
"Why subject us to this bullying by a few neighbors in a neighborhood of thousands?" Rothenberg-Aalami said.
After hearing from the public, the commission decided to change the provisions in the conditional use permit to align more closely with the church's desires. Led by Commissioners Michael Alcheck and William Riggs, the commission voted to raise the number of large events the church can host every year from six to 12; and the maximum attendance from 50 to 120. The commission also voted to eliminate a provision proposed by staff to prohibit amplifiers at the church and deleted a requirement that only counselors, psychotherapists and nonprofit organizations be allowed to rent space -- a significant change that could open First Baptist up to new commercial uses.
And in another nod to the church, the commission set the hours of operation for church tenants at 9 a.m. to 10 p.m. between Monday and Thursday, and 9 a.m. to 11 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday (the hours proposed by planning staff were 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. seven days a week, with exceptions for counseling and psychotherapy).
Alcheck took issue with the entire process and criticized planning staff for targeting the church with code enforcement violations. The city, he argued, shouldn't get into specific restrictions on First Baptist Church until it clearly defines the legal uses for all churches. While planning staff maintained that the conditional use permit would apply only to First Baptist Church, Alcheck argued that it would in fact set an important precedent for other Palo Alto churches.
"I think the best path forward is to have a community discussion about what uses we want to have at a church site," Alcheck said.
While Alcheck saw the proposed conditional use permit as too restrictive, Commissioner Doria Summa saw it as too permissive. Even before the commission decided to loosen the restrictions, Summa said she will not be able to make the finding (which is necessary for approval) that the conditional use permit would not be "detrimental to the public health, safety, general welfare of convenience."
"I don't feel it's our job tonight to fix the problems of First Baptist Church in terms of the shrinking congregation. ... I have great appreciation for all the uses that are there, but it has not been done in a legal manner," Summa said.
The City Council is scheduled to consider the matter on May 14.
The Rev. Rick Mixon analyzes the role of First Baptist Church in the community.
On March 7, Tenants and neighbors of the First Baptist Church in Palo Alto came together for a meeting on a conditional use permit that the church is applying for under protest.