Drop it: Belmont residents call it quits on petition against church rezoning

Residents who opposed the city’s rezoning of a Belmont church in order to build a 15-unit apartment complex have dropped their case.
PC: Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church Residents who opposed the city’s rezoning of a Belmont church in order to build a 15-unit apartment complex have dropped their case. PC: Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church

Last fall, a band of city residents stirred up controversy when they filed a petition against City Council, demanding that it overturn its decision to allow a Methodist church in Belmont to build a 15-unit apartment complex, with four to six units set aside for adults with developmental disabilities

After a lot of backlash on social media, some residents removed their names from the petition. Now, even those who didn’t initially back down have stopped fighting the structure.

The residents opposed the philanthropic development effort because they had concerns about a large, commercially zoned building in a residential neighborhood, says Mark Kavit, a petition leader.

“The way the media handled it…they really vilified the neighborhood, and made them look like they are against housing for the disabled and affordable housing, when that wasn’t the case,” says Kavit, who lives in North Downtown. “Residents’ concerns have been first and foremost about the zoning, and then the size and scope of the development.”

Over the past year, the petition has been a “bit of a headache” for Hinton Avenue United Methodist Church, but not a big problem, explains Kim Crater, who’s leading the planning of the apartment complex. The structure will be called Rachel’s Haven, in honor of the church’s pastor’s wife, who died of breast cancer in 2016.

“We’ve had to adjust the order that we do things in,” says Crater. “We don’t want to spend the money until we are 100 percent sure that the zoning is going to stay in place, so we’ve delayed [certain] tasks and done other ones instead.”

“We also have been hands off with the petition, because [it] wasn’t against us. It involved them and City Council. We weren’t even a party to it,” she says.

Before the petition was filed, Crater and her team worked to address neighbors’ reservations about the church’s rezoning application. Some feared the property would eventually be sold, and turned into a business, which they believed could cause problems for the neighborhood, explains Crater.

“Initially, we put in a proffer that we won’t build any restaurants, since that seemed to be the big thing they were worried about,” Crater says. “But then they [worried] we could put in a store, so we put in a proffer that said no commercial enterprise—this is only residential.”

The church also hosted public meetings to explain why the zoning change was necessary to build Rachel’s Haven, which will also include several affordable units, rented out at rates accessible for those making 80 percent of the area’s median income.

Last month, the petitioners finally abandoned their effort. “We decided to non-suit without prejudice, due to the complications of organization, and health in the pandemic,” says Belmont resident Kimber Hawkey, another petition leader. “It’s also a question of trying to fight this in the courts. The cost of hiring lawyers to take this on is prohibitive.”

“We had heard [that] many, many of them had dropped off,” says Crater. “We had hoped this was coming.”

Despite dropping the petition, Kavit and Hawkey remain concerned about the church’s commercial zoning, pointing to issues Belmont has already experienced with properties being rezoned from residential to commercial. Southern Crescent Galley & Bar drew ire from neighbors last year for playing loud music and adding two cabanas. The bar was later fined by the city.

Petitioners also worry that, should the church change hands, future property owners wouldn’t be legally required to abide by the church’s proffers, which aren’t binding. They hope the city will create a new zoning category allowing the church to build the apartments without permitting future commercial use.

Because the petition was dismissed “without prejudice,” the group could pursue it again in the future. While they’re not sure if they’ll ever take it back up, Kavit says he will lobby the city planning commission for a new zoning category for projects like Rachel’s Haven.

Meanwhile, Crater and her team continue to look for ways to fund the apartments, specifically through the federal Low-Income Housing Tax Credit program. They also plan to partner with an affordable housing nonprofit.

Though Crater does not expect the petitioners to file again, she hopes their concerns will be properly addressed.

“If they feel that the city did not respect their rights in this rezoning process…then I almost hope that they will file it again,” she says. “I never want people to feel like their rights are trampled, and that their voices aren’t heard.”

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