City Council members in Manassas are threatening to stall a proposed church building on Route 28 over traffic and parking concerns, but federal law prohibiting burdensome land-use decisions from restricting houses of worship could come into play.
The International Bible Baptist Church is proposing to first rehabilitate the current storefront at 9025 Centreville Road – formerly a furniture store – and then build an additional assembly space at the rear of the property where a dilapidated vacant slaughterhouse structure still stands. The additional space would serve a maximum of 200 people.
In 2021, pastor Jerico Tumang told InsideNoVa that his congregation had grown from humble beginnings in a Falls Church basement in 2003 to a hotel complex in the same area. Finally, he said, the church had raised enough money in 2020 to purchase the Manassas property for a permanent home.
But now, after the city’s Planning Commission unanimously recommended approval in December, the proposal is running into tough opposition from a group of City Council members, with some calling for a comprehensive traffic analysis that could significantly delay the rezoning and special-use permit needed for the 1.1-acre property.
Even before members of the public could speak at a Jan. 9 public hearing for the proposal, Vice Mayor Pam Sebesky and council member Tom Osina raised concerns about the amount of parking included in the proposal.
There were also fears that traffic problems could disrupt an access road into the East End Mobile Home park, which the church property abuts.
Sebesky said a traffic study should be carried out, despite city staff waiving any requirement for one because the church’s main worship services would be held only one day per week and during non-peak traffic hours. Representatives for the church said that outside of Sundays, the church could hold Bible study or other meetings during weeknights, and that those meetings would be small and held after rush hour.
The church has also agreed to pay for “manual” traffic control in coordination with the Manassas Police Department if the city said it needed to during Sunday services, but Sebesky said that wasn’t enough, urging instead that a full traffic impact study should be completed.
“The traffic on that road is … a lot. I was just on that road at 5 o’clock the other day, and the traffic on Liberia was backed up almost to Sudley Road, which would be past this property,” Sebesky said Monday night. “If we are bringing in … roughly 50 more cars, especially at very specific times of day, that would be a concern. And without a traffic study we would not know the true impact and what might need to be done at the intersection.”
At the same time, Sebesky suggested that turns into the church would be dangerous, saying that cars would be “coming in at 40 miles per hour” despite a posted speed limit of 25.
Sebesky and Osina also raised concerns over the proposed parking, which meets the city’s minimum requirements with 52 spots. Osina said that even though the proposal meets city requirements for the number of parking spaces and their size, the spots should be bigger to accommodate bigger cars. Fourteen of the plan’s 52 parking spots would be perpendicular to the two-lane access road to the mobile home park, where about 60 homes are located and for which the mobile home park has an ingress/egress easement.
“Some vehicles nowadays are much longer than those parking spaces and when you used to be able to get along having two lanes of traffic pass, you now have vehicles that stick out. My concern would definitely be those … spaces on the north side there, with vehicles because of their size, just sticking out into the road,” Osina said.
Overly burdensome regulations?
Church members told the council that, as Christians, they sought to be model neighbors and would ensure that the access road remained unobstructed by parked cars at all times. The church’s land use attorney, Sherman Patrick, also pointed out that a retail use at the property could be built by-right at any point, and that a shop would likely bring much more traffic into the area on the average day.
They also pointed out that the site plans included an area with benches and additional sidewalk for parents and children to wait at the school bus pick-up spot at the intersection of Centreville Road and the access road.
Council member Mark Wolfe pointed out that the Religious Land Use and Institutionalized Persons Act – a federal law passed in 2000 – could come into play if the city placed stipulations on the church that were too burdensome.
“Councilor Wolfe is referring to a federal law which restricts a city’s ability to regulate land use in a manner that has a detrimental effect on the free exercise of religion,” City Attorney Craig Brown told the council. “The statute basically exists to protect religious organizations such as churches from land use regulations or decisions that unduly burden their ability to exercise their religion, and that certainly cna come into play under a special use permit or rezoning.”
Sebesky said that she didn’t want to stop a new church from moving to the city, but that residents needed to be protected from potential impacts. At the end of the hearing, she proposed delaying the conclusion of the public hearing to a “date uncertain,” before Brown suggested that they continue it to their next meeting and then do so again if they seek further delay. Wolfe and Councilmember Teresa Coates Ellis were the only votes against the delay, which passed 4-2.
During the public’s time, several residents of the nearby mobile home said they were concerned about possible disruptions to the access road and construction.
While Patrick said that the church planned to begin work on the rehabilitation of the smaller storefront shortly after approval, the second building is “phase two” of the plan and there was no timeline for the start of that work, which will require more fundraising.
“I am not necessarily against them building their church here, however I’m not sure this is necessarily the solution that they want. The street that we use to enter and exit is quite a small street,” Diana Martinez said through a translator.
“The traffic is already really, really crowded on 28 … in the morning because of the buses and all other cars going in the morning to work, it’s a lot, a lot of traffic,” a woman named Alma said.
But Joyce Averion, a Loudoun County Public Schools math teacher and member of the church, said that the church was rooted in a duty to God and to others and that they would be good neighbors.
“This church helps me to be a better wife, a better mother, a better daughter, a better sister, a better colleague and a better friend. I would not be what I am today without this church,” Averion said. “We greatly want to be a good neighbor. We hear the concerns. Safety is our concern. The easement is on the property and we have accepted that easement, we are not even touching. It’s an access to and from the mobile homes, we want them to have that access. … We really want to be a good neighbor and absolutely not impede on that easement. … We want to let the community know that we are not touching that in-and-out. You will have access in and out, that is no questions asked.”
It is unclear when the issue will next be taken up by the council.