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Church may get a reprieve in neighborhood dispute

Palo Alto panel supports granting a 'conditional use permit' to First Baptist Church

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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.

Related content:

Opinion: On stewardship and being a good neighbor

The Rev. Rick Mixon analyzes the role of First Baptist Church in the community.

First Baptist Church tenants, neighbors seek truce

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.


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31 people like this
Posted by Wonderful!
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2018 at 6:34 am

Thank you Planning Commission for valuing community uses! Churches were always the center of a community and while it's uses have changed over time from religious to more secular, it's great to see FBC continuing to nurture community!

56 people like this
Posted by Anything Goes
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2018 at 6:55 am

And so the anything-goes frenzy of tossing laws out the windows continues non-stop in Palo Alto. Even our neighborhood churches are now getting into it. Sounds like they'll be allowed to rent to anyone, including underparked tech startups.

So much for love thy neighbor as thyself. It's now screw thy neighbor and pocket the dough.

50 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2018 at 7:26 am

What this really says is that we need more community space in Palo Alto. Every time something like a bowling alley leaving or similar space closing, we lose an amenity. It doesn't matter whether it is something for recreation, something for culture, or something for families to hang out and have some fun, space in Palo Alto is diminishing all the time.

Every time we build more homes on what was a thriving space for recreation or for classes or for anything else, we are increasing the population without giving the increased population more space for leisuretime activities. We can't keep increasing Pack and Stack housing with the idea that people just need to sleep and work. We need to increase places where local people can live, can breathe, can congregate, can hang out, can spend the time that we all need which isn't working, eating or sleeping.

Whether it is churches taking up the slack doesn't matter. There is a need that has to be taken into account. It is about time that CC understood that living in Palo Alto means more than building homes and expecting those that live in them will walk to work and then spend the rest of the time hibernating in those tiny homes.

28 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 12, 2018 at 7:45 am


Agree that Palo alto needs more community space. Council Member Holman has opined about this for years especially the loss of things like bowling alley's, movie theaters, arts spaces etc...etc...

That doesn't mean that a bowling alley, for instance, should operate 7 days a week till 11pm with virtually no parking in a residential neighborhood???

Currently it is illegal to operate a commercial use in R-1 (and many other zones ) how about an 7-11 next door to you or another resident....would that be good too?

21 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Another Palo Alto neighborhood
on Apr 12, 2018 at 7:57 am

Anon, that is my point exactly. We are losing community space in places with the right type of zoning, in downtown, in business areas. So where can the community space be found. Instead of providing community space in places where there can be people congregating with ample parking until 11.00 pm or whenever, they are building homes or allowing office space for non-community service businesses. It is no wonder then that these community spaces are being forced into residential areas.

The point of my post is to show that we have a need for leisure activities. When the CC doesn't provide enough space then innovation occurs and places like churches who have some space take up the slack.

In an ideal world, there would be community centers with sufficient space to host and rent out space for leisure activities and businesses that provide recreational services.

We are quickly becoming a dormitory community as far as CC is concerned with emphasis on working, sleeping and eating, with the emphasis on walking and nothing else.

I think we are going to find more and more problems when we increase our population without providing enough community center space to allow for recreation and leisure. I expect to find more residential neighborhoods impacted with other churches jumping on the bandwagon and providing the space for these organizations that the City is not finding space for.

I am not disagreeing with you at all. I am just explaining why I think the problem exists and show that this problem will not go away as we build more and more stack and pack housing, cram more people into town and give them nothing to do.

7 people like this
Posted by anon
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 12, 2018 at 8:04 am

OK...right on Resident!!!!

50 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 8:13 am

The City Attorney needs to get involved before this goes any further. The grandfathered parking exemption for the First Baptist Church does not apply for any new uses, according to the Palo Alto Municipal Code. The proposed CUP for non-church activities, which marks an intensification and change in use, clearly triggers a parking review under the law at today's standards, under which 8 on-site parking spots would not suffice.

The current "community centers" owned by the City of Palo Alto and the Palo Alto Unified School District were all located on major streets and purpose-built for large crowds and extended use: Lucie Stern, Cubberly, Mitchell Park. Last year's "community center" designation for Greenmeadow made sense because it was also built specifically by the Eichler developer to be a gathering place with plenty of parking and setback from the neighbors. The First Baptist Church was not built to be anything other than a church, and the parking lot and current zoning reflect that. This decision by the Planning Commission is precedent-setting and is a parking disaster for the surrounding neighborhood.

This decision will be reviewed by the City Council at their May 14 meeting. Hopefully the City Attorney will provide better guidance about the legal barriers that are required to be considered by the City of Palo Alto Municipal Code before this kind of change in zoning.

15 people like this
Posted by Two-faced Reporting
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 12, 2018 at 9:16 am

Summa made inflammatory and divisive remarks but none of that is reported. She accused all members of PTC who supported the CUP as “dereliction of duty”.
Further, there is absolutely nothing unlawful about granting a church a CUP. It’s common practice among municipalities.

37 people like this
Posted by Reasonableness
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 9:23 am

I thought the most important point of the night was the notion of reasonableness. What happens when neighbor’s are unreasonable? How can any person or institution satisfy an unreasonably dissatisfied neighbor.

This whole thing seems to be more about bullying by neighbors than about land use. I grew up going to church. We used to have all sorts of events there. Performances, book clubs (sponsored by local book stores), even youth group sleep overs. I’m sure the neighbors would be happier with quaint little park. It’s the same suggestion we’ve heard by Castilleja Neighbor’s: “this site is not appropriate for (fill in the blank private institution).” I think we need to push back against the wave of neighbors who have made it their mission to constrain these institutions until they no longer can serve and survive.

Thank you commissioners for getting this one right.

45 people like this
Posted by JCP
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 10:26 am

JCP is a registered user.

This is tragic for all R1 neighborhoods. A community center with 8 parking spaces? Come on! Don't force neighbors on N California to bear the burden for the City's lack of commitment to community services.

Your neighborhood could be next, if this is a new precedent.

What is this new spirit in Palo Alto that neighborhoods don't matter if people outside of the neighborhood have a choir or school loyalty (see Castilleja)? Sure, plenty of iSing people live in 94301 but not next to the church. It shows a lot of self-interest and very little empathy.

22 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2018 at 10:48 am

In the last few years, groups of neighbors have decided that they cannot handle a few extra cars or any noise. They spend their time fighting against local programs and schools. It is a sad use of time. There are so many things that need positive energy why not focus on that. It is sad to see what some Palo Altans have become.

8 people like this
Posted by Palo Alto Resident
a resident of Evergreen Park
on Apr 12, 2018 at 10:54 am

If FirstvBaptist Church is willing to convert their property to an affordable senior center, lot's of PA residents will support it. It is not a good use of the site, now!

32 people like this
Posted by Mom
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 1:19 pm

A CUP for a church (routine) is very different legally than a new CUP to allow a church to change uses and become a commercial landlord for non-related groups and private, for-profit medical practitioners (no precedent for this in the entire City of Palo Alto).

This particular CUP application would allow doctor's offices to continue to operate at the church. R-1 zoning does not allow medical services, and no other "community center" in the entire City of Palo Alto has doctor's offices onsite. This is precedent setting in multiple, dangerous ways.

42 people like this
Posted by Marj
a resident of Walter Hays School
on Apr 12, 2018 at 3:22 pm

A home is to be a peaceful place to be able to rest and relax. Can you imagine how these folks feel when all of this noise goes on? This has been going on for years. Not being able to hear your television, people waking you up with loud noise coming from the music playing, people talking very loudly on the street, all of these factors would drive me nuts. Try coming home from work and trying to park your car where you live and not being able to because your drive way is blocked by other cars dropping off children or going to an event or worst yet double parking and blocking the street. I am sure a lot more neighbors are thinking the exact same thing but have to speak up.

35 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 5:21 pm

All Palo Alto homeowners should be concerned about the Transportation Commissions CUP decision. The hidden agenda of many of the Planning and Transportation Commission members is to do away with the R1 residential designation. They want multi family development allowed in our neighborhoods. Commissioner Alcheck is most aggressive proponent among the commissioners.

24 people like this
Posted by I Was There
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 8:42 pm

@ Reasonableness....your point is unreasonable. Why don't you reverse the question? How can a neighbor satisfy unreasonable demands by an institution? If you live anywhere near the church (I mean close to the church) or Castilleja, I'd be willing to bet you'd be singing a different tune.

This isn't about bullying. In fact, many residents think they are being bullied by Castlleja, so stop with the name calling already. It doesn't help your argument.

Most people living in these areas ARE reasonable people. Don't assume you know their thoughts.

Like this comment
Posted by Background Checks
a resident of Crescent Park
on Apr 12, 2018 at 9:01 pm

[Post removed.]

30 people like this
Posted by I Was There
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 9:04 pm

@ Two Faced reporting...Summa's comments reflected sensibilty and a respect for laws on the books. You can't grant a permit if you are not in compliance with law, and the issuance of the permit does not comply. Her comments are inflammatory to you because you disagree with her opinion. Think about it.

Alcheck and Riggs need to do their homework with regard to existing law. This use permit does not comply and should have never been approved. Period. Put it to a vote and change the law if that's what you think should happen, but don't criticize her for making legal sense.

12 people like this
Posted by Resident
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 9:17 pm

[Post removed.]

26 people like this
Posted by I was there 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 12, 2018 at 11:15 pm

@ Reasonableness.... your argument is completely unreasonable. I too grew up going to a church and participated in several activities there. But the difference was and still is that we used to walk or ride our bikes. Also no activities were permitted after 7 P.M. as the institution was in a residential neighborhood. We were taught to always respect our neighbors. I think the whole point of serving your community is lost when you disturb the peace of very community you are in. Neighbors are asking to put the safety and welfare of not just the residents but also the children who bike to school everyday to be put above everything else before making the church a commercial establishment (under the guise of community center). Your point is not at all reasonable.

33 people like this
Posted by I was there 2
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 13, 2018 at 12:11 am

Michael Alcheck had a writeup/comment ready and did not participate in any form of questioning during the meeting yesterday. He simply sided with the church. He blasted everyone for making the church go through this. He said the congregation that he went to had all kinds of activities without revealing if the congregation that he was part of was in a densely populated residential neighborhood, or if they made loud noise till 11 P.M. in the night every night, or if his congregation was in a busy bike intersection/boulevard which a lot of kids used, or if there were parking issues, or how many parking spots his congregation had. He simply omitted all the important facts and just revealed that they had yoga classes and other classes in their congregation.

He did not address any issues like noise and safety of kids riding bikes. He talked about children crossing train tracks and said that is already a safety issue. At the railway crossings we have lights and a guard. At traffic crossings we have guards. How can this be equated with a car suddenly crossing a bike lane to do a drop off or pick up? This area is heavily trafficked by Jordan and Paly kids. Its common sense that if a car crosses a biker's path suddenly it could cause accidents. The car will be fine but the biker or bikers will definitely be hurt. One cannot blame the kids for not seeing the signs, how about we all take the responsibility for keeping the streets safe for kids of our community?

Also he mentioned coming to site at least 10 times. 10 times when? In the last few months? When iSinger's are dropped off and picked up? When? Yes, I agree the noise level and the traffic issues have been contained due to the iSing director taking some actions, new mozart school moving out, all sorts of late folk music tenants asked to stop coming etc. There is thankfully no activity that generates noise after 8 P.M. , so thats a blessing. The traffic issues hasn't stopped completely, people still occasionally make u turns in the middle of California avenue to drop off kids, but definitely it happens less often now. Has he seen this place in its full glory with all sorts of violations in the last 2 years? No. He hasn't been here to witness the loud rock music or the folk dancing at 10 P.M. disturbing all the neighbors. He hasn't seen kids on bicycles get into near accidents. He has permitted these activities again by allowing the church to remain open until 11 P.M. (on weekends) and 10 P.M.(weekdays). He has also increased the number of people who can be at the church at any time to 120 from 50. So he has given permission for more traffic. Everyone is not going to be iSing. Each tenant is going to be different. Also we have never seen a law enforcement officer come and issue tickets to these violators. Mr. Alcheck hasn't lived here. Just visiting 10 times does not do it. He does not get the gravity of the situation. Period.

BTW, he has also allowed the use of amplifiers as part of this. Are we in a residential zone or shoreline park?

Also he voted in 2017 that new mozart school violated the zoning code, while in this CUP he permitted zoning code violation by allowing doctor's offices and other institutions like new mozart to be tenants. Clearly something is wrong in this picture.
Web Link

4 people like this
Posted by sing with me
a resident of Green Acres
on Apr 13, 2018 at 1:04 am

If people living in that area would GO BACK TO CHURCH, there would not be a reason to be fussing about parking as they would all walk to church like they did in the '50's.....and supporting the church with brotherhood, smiles and good will...

4 people like this
Posted by M A
a resident of Downtown North
on Apr 13, 2018 at 9:03 am

Thank you Planning Commission. Churches rent to Non Profits I believe and We need local meeting places.Most of the churches in PA have been in our neighborhoods as the neighborhoods grew.

A neighbor PA resident

4 people like this
Posted by jonnyss
a resident of Menlo Park
on Apr 14, 2018 at 8:55 am

Actually, every community center in Palo Alto and almost every church in Palo Alto and across the country already hosts psychotherapy services in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs. Cubberly Community Center already hosts medical services in the form of the cardiac rehabilitation program, Heart Fit for Life. Several neighbors expressed a strong preference for individual services over group services because of the lower noise and traffic.

15 people like this
Posted by mark
a resident of Old Palo Alto
on Apr 16, 2018 at 11:47 am

If they want to act as a commercial enterprise and rent to those who pay for the space, then their status as a church comes under question and they can therefore lose their ability to operate as a tax exempt entity.

This has happened in San Francisco when a few of the churches started hosting car washes every weekend. This also happened when they started appearing on parking apps for people searching for parking. They were challenged by area car wash operators and by parking lot owners. The churches stopped these activities because they are illegal.

The tax law for the State of California is not black and white, but it is black and white enough to end any type of commercial activity by threatening to pull tax-exempt status of any church activity that competes with office space or other type of spaces on a more than "one off" event. You get taxed, or you stop doing it. That means, you pay real estate taxes and you pay income taxes. Until you want to lose your tax exempt status, stop doing what you are doing and abide by state tax law.

11 people like this
Posted by eileen
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 16, 2018 at 3:17 pm

eileen is a registered user.

@jonnyss : "Actually, every community center in Palo Alto and almost every church in Palo Alto and across the country already hosts psychotherapy services in the form of Alcoholics Anonymous and similar programs".

Alcoholics Anonymous is NOT a for-profit psychotherapy service or necessarily run by licensed medical professionals. Anyone can walk in and receive their service free of charge! The licensed psychotherapists who have offices at the church charge for their services and are not open to the public unless you make an appointment and pay a going rate for therapy (usually $150 + an hour).

Let's not confuse a community center (for-profit), Doctors/Therapists offices (for profit) with a church who has a tax-exempt status. As far as I know, very few of the groups who rent space at the church are non-profit organizations. They all charge $$ for their services unlike the church bake-off or pancake breakfast of years ago which just asked for a donation!

9 people like this
Posted by Annette
a resident of College Terrace
on Apr 16, 2018 at 5:40 pm

Annette is a registered user.

There's always a chance CC will ignore the PTC recommendation. Just last Monday our CC dismissed the majority opinion of the PTC and instead adopted an affordable housing ordinance that reflected the recommendation of just 3 of the 7 PTC commissioners. In fact, the Mayor allowed Monk to speak in favor of the minority (Monk/Alcheck/Riggs)opinion.

Perhaps Ms. Summa should go to CC when this issue is on the agenda and ask for the same courtesy. After all, the precedent has been set.

12 people like this
Posted by Marie
a resident of Midtown
on Apr 17, 2018 at 2:24 am

Marie is a registered user.

A community center should be restricted to uses that reflect available parking, which in this case is 8 parking spots. Events for 120 people are not suitable for such a spot. Gamble Garden Center limits its events to 75 people, because that is what their parking supports (far more than 8).

I think the original proposal limiting events to 50 people is very generous and I hope that is what the city council supports.

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