CASTLE HILLS — The town could face a lawsuit after the City Council recently failed to amend a special-use permit allowing a local church to formally use a neighboring property it already owns.
Wayside Chapel Evangelical Free Church had asked the city to modify an 8-year-old permit so it could use the vacant home at 113 Ivywood Circle.
“There are criteria set forth in city of Castle Hills ordinances for denying a special-use permit and none of them are applicable,” attorney Scott Farrimond told city officials on behalf of the church.
He added the church might seek legal redress under a federal law protecting houses of worship.
The growing church bought the nearby house in hopes of using it for religious and church-related purposes, such as classroom space.
Wayside in previous years has acquired 10 other neighboring houses. A permit the city granted in 2011 lets Wayside use two houses for sheltering visiting missionaries, and eight other houses for religious and church functions.
The city’s Zoning Commission originally approved amending the old permit this past spring to allow the church to fully use 113 Ivywood Circle.
But the city over the summer asked the Zoning Commission to reconsider the SUP amendment request because of a clerical error. The board voted 4-1 on Oct. 3 to recommend denying the application.
Farrimond told the council the fault for the paperwork technicality lay with city staff, not with Wayside. He said rescinding the SUP amendment could cause Wayside to take legal action against the city to resolve the matter.
Farrimond said denying the SUP amendment means the city could be in violation of the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act.
The federal law, signed by President Bill Clinton in 2000, gives religious institutions a way to avoid zoning restrictions on the use of their own property.
Farrimond added that allowing the church to formally use 113 Ivywood Circle would not increase traffic or pose a risk to public safety or utilities.
At the Oct. 3 zoning meeting, a couple of residents urged the panel to approve Wayside’s request and wondered why the application had been returned. Even City Attorney Marc Schnall recommended approval.
But some commissioners cited concerns that approving the SUP amendment could set a precedent.
Member Jana Baker, then a candidate in the Nov. 5 special council election, said the church should have applied for a new permit for 113 Ivywood Circle instead of adding it to the existing SUP.
A few residents at the Oct. 8 follow-up council session expressed support for the permit amendment.
But others, while they didn’t oppose modifying the SUP, said they weren’t comfortable addressing an original SUP that covered properties the church had not owned yet at the time of its approval.
“The better approach is (Wayside) should apply for a new SUP that governs this property,” Shawn Timlin said.
Council members did not offer reasons for denying the SUP amendment, other than referencing the reported clerical mistake.
“I can only go by what you’ve done, what you are doing. I don’t think you’ve done anything to mislead us,” Alderman Douglas Gregory said.
Farrimond said Wayside has never received a complaint about how it has exercised the permit that covers the existing adjacent houses.
But a lengthy discussion did not end in the church’s favor. Gregory and colleagues Amy McLin and Clyde McCormick voted to amend the SUP.
But Alderman Mark Sanderson voted to oppose the amendment, and Alderwoman Lesley Wenger abstained. She did not offer a reason for refraining from the vote.
Because a supermajority did not prevail, the council could not overturn the zoning board’s last decision.
Mayor JR Trevino later wrote to the Zoning Commission, saying any possible litigation from Wayside will result in the city “further distancing itself from servicing the immediate needs of residents.”
Trevino urged the commission to reconsider the SUP amendment as soon as possible. As of press time, Wayside representatives had not answered a query on whether the church was mulling a lawsuit.
Castle Hills is already facing some financial woes. The council failed to ratify an originally proposed property tax rate for fiscal year 2020 by a specific deadline when two council members did not attend a crucial meeting, resulting in a lack of quorum.
So, the city had to proceed with a slightly lower rate, an action that is projected to cost Castle Hills nearly $120,000 in new revenue that was meant for street and drainage fixes.
The city is also looking into whether it could recoup the costs involved in defending itself in a lawsuit that now-former Alderwoman Sylvia Gonzalez filed after the city stated she had been incorrectly sworn into office following her election win last May.