St. Paul's in Space Crunch by Pamela Butler


  [This article appeared in the December 14, 2000 edition of the Darien Times. It is reproduced here by permission.]

In an effort to unify the congregation, St. Paul's Episcopal Church recently combined the four Sunday services previously held at its Mansfield Avenue location into one large service at the Darien High School. The issue of too little space is a familiar one for St. Paul's, and its move to Darien High School is reminiscent of history.

St. Paul's, established 42 years ago, began as a "church plant" from St. Luke's Episcopal Church, meeting in local schools to conduct its Sunday services. St. Paul's built its current facility on Mansfield Avenue after a resident donated the property to the church in the 1960s.

Throughout the '70s and '80s, St. Paul's congregation grew tremendously, and, according to Rector Christopher Leighton, it became evident that the facility had major space problems. As a result, the church leadership made a decision to conduct the Sunday service off-site at Darien High School. The church continued to hold Sunday services there for 12 years.

Leighton said that during those years, numerous attempts were made by the church to expand the Mansfield Avenue property, however, their attempts were repeatedly blocked by the local zoning boards. At one point, the congregation planned to leave Darien and purchase property in New Canaan, but the deal fell through.

Ironically, the need for more space, and the frustration which resulted in not being able to obtain it, negatively affected the congregation's morale. Many members left St. Paul's and some of the clergy resigned. "It was a very sad time for the church," said Leighton. "The church saw a tremendous decline in the late '80s and '90s, both in membership and in resources."

With fewer members, St. Paul's was once again able to manage its Sunday service at the Mansfield Avenue location.

According to Leighton, four years of praying and soul searching has led the church into a spiritual revival. Leighton said the church's membership has been steadily growing for the last three years, making it necessary to move religious services off-site.

"We realized it was great that we are growing, but that it resulted in our being somewhat fractured. We had four separate congregations, and we felt like God wanted us all to be together," Leighton said.

Although the two unified services at Darien High School have gone well, the church has established a future planning committee to explore every possibility, both in Darien and elsewhere, about how to solve the space issue at St. Paul's for good.

Expanding the facility on Mansfield Avenue is one option St. Paul's will consider. A federal law passed earlier this year could make getting approval from local zoning boards easier should St. Paul's decide to pursue building an addition onto the church.

The legislation, known as the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act of 2000, basically allows churches and certain other institutions to bypass local zoning regulations, if they believe those regulations are severely impairing their exercise of religion. The Act requires planning and zoning regulations to show a compelling public interest in their decision if they deny the application, similar to the legislation regarding affordable housing applications.

At least two religious institutions in nearby Westchester County have already seen the legislation work to their advantage. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints in Harrison, N.Y., was permitted to build a 45-foot temple with an even higher tower and cupola in an area where zoning regulations permit a 30-foot height maximum for structures.

Similarly, Young Israel of New Rochelle was approved to build a 37,000 square foot synagogue with only two parking spaces on site (additional parking spaces will be provided off-site). Local zoning regulations in that area generally require a structure of this size to provide adequate parking spaces for 132 vehicles on the property.

Darien Town Planner Jeremy Ginsberg said he does not believe the legislative act will have any effect on the process churches in Darien must go through in order to apply for zoning variances or special use permits.

"The law is brand new and first must be sifted out over time," he said. "In my opinion this doesn't change the process one iota, but the courts will ultimately decide how the new legislation is applied."

Although Leighton said that St. Paul's is aware of the new legislation, it is not seeking to become a test case for the federal law or to enter into a drawn-out fight with the town over expansion of the building.

"Right now we're still trying to figure out if we belong here in Darien or elsewhere," said Leighton. "If indeed we go back to the zoning board, we would do so humbly and with a different attitude than before."

Leighton said that if the church did eventually decide to try and expand the building and the town felt that was not an appropriate way to solve St. Paul's space crunch, the church would accept that decision.

Leighton said the church may have a better idea of the options it may pursue for dealing with the space issue after the Future Planning Committee has had more time to look into the matter.

[Webminister's note: You might want to read about the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act (RLUIPA)  You might also want to view the full text of RLUIPA.]