UPDATE: In an email to the San Francisco Chronicle, reported May 19, Rev. Gregory Stevens -- who on Twitter in late March called Palo Alto "disgusting" and "elitist" and used vulgar, scatological allusions -- announced that he has resigned from First Baptist Church.
In doing so, he hoped to "help minimize the negativity focused on the good community work being done at the First Baptist Church of Palo Alto."
"I tweeted to vent my frustration," the email to SFGate.com stated, "and I acknowledge that I did so in an unprofessional and often hurtful way."
However, he also criticized Palo Altans, saying, "I believe Palo Alto is a ghetto of wealth, power and elitist liberalism by proxy, meaning that many community members claim to want to fight for social justice issues, but that desire doesn't translate into action."
Seeking to end the bitter feud between an Old Palo Alto church and its neighbors, Palo Alto officials agreed on Monday to grant First Baptist Church a permit to operate as a community center.
By a 7-2 vote, with Councilwoman Karen Holman and Councilwoman Lydia Kou dissenting, the City Council gave its blessing to a conditional use permit that will allow First Baptist to legally rent its space to secular tenants and to retain its current tenants, including a therapist and iSing, a singing school for girls. And in a nod to neighborhood complaints, the city also included in the permit limits on the hours of operation and the occupancy levels at the church, along with a provision that would nullify the permit if the property ceases to be a church.
The council's vote brings a measure of resolution to a conflict that has now been simmering for several years. With congregation numbers dipping, First Baptist has been increasingly renting out rooms to nonprofits, dance groups and therapists and using the rent revenues to maintain its building at 305 N. California Ave. After neighbors complained about excessive noise, increased traffic and insufficient parking, the city began hitting the church with notices of violation. Last year, code enforcement officers required several tenants, including the New Mozart School of Music, to move its operations out of First Baptist. Others, including iSing, have remained in planning purgatory until late Monday night, when after four hours of debate the council finally approved the conditional use permit that effectively legalizes their church operation.
More than 100 people attended the emotional hearing, with about 50 directly addressing the council and dozens more sending emails. iSing singers wore pink shirts and carried pink signs with the words "CUP for FBC." Their parents, joined by First Baptist parishioners and supporters of the church, encouraged the council to give the church the latitude it needs to retain its existing uses.
Some talked about the challenge of finding free community space in Palo Alto, while others praised iSing and lauded First Baptist Church as a benign and responsible force in the community.
The Rev. Rick Mixon, pastor at First Baptist, told the council that the church has no desire to become a "mega community center" or to have a "larger commercial enterprise" operate on its site.
"We simply want to make it possible for a few worthwhile organizations and activities that provide for the welfare of the city to share our space," Mixon said.
Neighbors of the church also turned out in droves to describe the various hazards and inconveniences they've had to endure as a result of the increased commercialization. Some accused First Baptist of being little more than a commercial landlord, masquerading as a church. Many of them asked the council Monday to uphold the sanctity of zoning by prohibiting disruptive tenants from setting up operations in a single-family neighborhood.
Judith Schwartz, who lives several buildings away from the church, said she was amazed by how loud the church activity has gotten. Forcing neighbors to listen to multiple groups, hour after hour, effectively deprives them of the "peaceful sanctuary" of their own homes, she said.
"To me it sounds more like torture than a public benefit," Schwartz said.
In trying to thread the needle between the two camps, the council hewed fairly closely to the recommendation from planning staff, which drafted a list of conditions that the church would have to follow to retain its legal status and its tenants. As such, the council strayed from the advice of its Planning and Transportation Commission, which advocated a far more permissive approach that largely deferred to all church requests. The planning commission had proposed an occupancy limit of 120 people; planning staff had suggested 50.
Spurred by Councilman Greg Scharff, the council settled on 70. The permit will also allow the church to seat up to 280 people for six special events per year. The council also agreed to set the hours of operations to 10 a.m. to 7:30 p.m., in accordance with staff's recommendation, and raised the number of individual therapists that the church can rent space to from three to five, as suggested by Holman.
The discussion underscored the growing tensions between the church's tenants and neighbors. Kou said that she had recently attended an iSing performance at the church. At the performance, iSing's artistic director accused neighbors of being hateful toward the nonprofit, Kou said.
"When somebody says the neighbors are full of hate and are nasty, that is not acceptable," Kou said, calling the director's behavior "very appalling."
Other council members voiced displeasure at the social-media antics of Gregory Stevens, an associate pastor at First Baptist since 2015. In a series of tweets, which were drafted in late March and which were collected and circulated to the council before the Monday meeting, Stevens targets the police, makes fun of seniors in the congregation and takes shots at Palo Alto, which he calls "disgusting" and "elitist" (the page associated with the Twitter account has since been taken down).
Stevens also made a series of vulgar, scatological allusions and, at one point, wrote, "In the nicest way possible: I hate Palo Alto."
For some council members, the tweets had little to do with the application and, as such, could be easily ignored. But Vice Mayor Eric Filseth called them "disturbing" and said he wouldn't let his children attend any services at the church where a staff member publicly expresses such views.
Holman also found them alarming and asked Mixon to explain what the church plans to do about them. The messages, she said, are "nothing I would expect to come out of a minister's mouth or a minister's fingertips."
"These are quite frankly vile comments, using expletives and defaming of people, including our Police Department," Holman said.
Mixon said he had just learned of the tweets on Monday morning and said "they clearly have to be dealt with." The church's board will consider a response, Mixon said.
Mixon said Stevens is under a three-year contract with the church which will end in August and suggested that the tweets will likely play a role in the church's decision about Stevens' future.
After an extensive debate and a long sequence of amendments, the council voted to approve the permit and agreed to revisit it in five years. Calling it a compromise, Scharff said he hopes the new permit will "cut down on the noise and the annoyance and all of that."
"Hopefully, it's a compromise that works -- that makes life better and gets rid of all of these issues," Scharff said.