Church sues county over fellowship hall

May 16, 2011 

Grays Hill Baptist Church, which wants to add a fellowship hall to host meetings and other events, is suing Beaufort County.

The church, which owns about 10 acres on Trask Parkway, seeks a variance from rules limiting development near Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort. Church representatives say the county approved its plan for a second building when it submitted a master plan for its property in 1996, before constructing its sanctuary.

When the church sought approval to build the fellowship hall in 2007, however, county officials denied the request, according to documents the church filed last year in Beaufort County Circuit Court.

Among other arguments, the church -- represented by attorney Fred Kuhn Jr. of Beaufort -- says its fellowship hall should be allowed because it:

  • Was previously approved in the master plan.

  • Satisfied the county's rules about land use near the air station at the time construction plans were submitted.

  • Would be an "auxiliary use" to the sanctuary that would not increase the property's "occupant load" and would require no new parking space.

    County attorney Lad Howell said the county had to deny the church's request because a fellowship hall could enable the church to hold larger gatherings on its property.

    "When you expand anything, it makes room for more people," Howell said. "Factually, you've got to look at that possibility."

    Marine Corps officials, who advise local government about plans for development near the air station, oppose the fellowship hall because it would be in an "accident-potential zone," where multi-family residential development, assembly areas, churches, auditoriums and schools are incompatible with federal guidelines, wrote 1st Lt. Sharon Hyland, the air station's director of public affairs, in an email.

    The church says the policy constitutes "an unreasonable restriction" to permit only one building on its property and argues that other organizations have received variances for activities near the air station.

    Steve Blankenship, chairman of the church's trustees, said he has offered to do "everything within reason" to satisfy the county, including proposing to install an electrical system that would shut off power to one building when occupants move to the other.

    He said church officials are frustrated by the expensive legal wrangling and want the fellowship hall so they can better serve their congregation, which includes air station personnel.

    "All we're doing is spending money, and the county is spending money," Blankenship said.

    He said the county's apparent unwillingness to compromise is "kind of like a slap in the face" because the county annually asks the church for use of its property in case of an emergency.

    Judge Marvin Dukes recently asked both sides to submit their arguments in writing before he rules, Howell said.

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