|Controversy brews over proposed ordinance governing Rockdale churches|
|Thursday, 21 March 2013 13:52 | Written by Valerie J. Morgan|
CONYERS—Some pastors in Rockdale County are vowing to fight a proposed ordinance they say is a move to discourage black churches from moving to Rockdale County.
While the county’s “Places of Assembly” proposed ordinance relaxes several requirements for churches, including allowing them to exist in every zoning district in the county, the ordinance bans churches from residential areas and requires them to have a special land use permit for auxiliary services such as food pantries and clothing banks. The restriction from residential communities, however, has become one of the main concerns with several pastors saying the ban would greatly impact start-up churches.
Helen Hollingsworth, a pastor who recently moved to Rockdale, said the ordinance has racist undertones, and vows to fight it.
"I think a lot of white people are not happy with the fact that Conyers is becoming more and more ethnically diverse, and the typical churches that will be meeting in homes are people of color. It's just another form of racism," said Hollingsworth, who spoke out at a public hearing held this week.
Planning and Zoning Director Marshall Walker, however, disagreed. He said the proposed regulation is designed to protect both, homeowners and churches, pointing out the main purpose of the ordinance is to address issues such as parking and fire codes for safety reasons. Walker said the county didn’t have a very good ordinance governing churches and other places of assembly and the new one is an attempt to do just that.
“When you buy a single-family home in a residential area, there are certain things you expect as a homeowner—not to have cars parked everywhere and loud noise,” Walker said. “Prayer groups are permitted in homes so long as there is no impact on the community. If a neighbor complains, though, code enforcement is going to come out and the Sheriff’s department and issue a citation.”
Pastor J. Phillip Baker, who oversees the historic Shady Grove Baptist Church, an African American church started by his grandfather, said he respects the county’s efforts to protect both, homeowners and churches.
“I’m a pastor, I love the Lord as much as anyone and I don’t want to live next door to a church. That is not why I moved to a residential community,” said Baker, a lifelong Rockdale resident. “Laws are what keeps our society civil. We’ve got to understand that if we want to win people to Christ, we have to be good neighbors and abide by rules.”
Pastor Charmaine E. Moss, who oversees Providence Church International in Conyers, said the issue is not as simplistic as some would believe. Moss has had her battles with the county and she says she suspects the ordinance is an attempt to shut down churches. Last year, Moss said she was cited twice for having a donated trailer on her church’s property that she planned to use for ministry and auxiliary classrooms.
“They said I couldn’t have a (the trailer) on the property. They didn’t care that it was for ministry,” Moss said. “I don’t like the fact that with this ordinance, God is equated with a banquet hall or performing arts center. It really disturbs me. And when you look at this ordinance, it is full of booby traps.”
For example, Moss said churches that have been “grandfathered” in under existing zoning districts may not rebuild at non-conforming locations, if the church is destroyed.
“If a tree falls on the church or the church burns to the ground, you can’t rebuild there because the area wasn’t zoned for a church,” Moss said. “The church would have to find somewhere else to go.”
The Board of Commissioners is holding a public hearing before its regularly scheduled meeting on next Tuesday at 9 a.m. in the Rockdale County Assembly Hall, 901 North Main St., Conyers. The commissioners will vote on the ordinance on April 9.