Growing Pains | April 11, 2008 | Danville Express | |

Danville Express

Cover Story - April 11, 2008

Growing Pains

After lengthy battle, spirit of compromise settles on church neighborhood

by Meghan Neal

When Gretchen Petersen moved onto West El Pintado Road in Danville 14 years ago it was a nice, quiet neighborhood.

"Now it's very crowded and busy, and there's lots of traffic, and the street is full of parked cars all the time, and it's noisy. Quite a change," she said.

The reason for the change is the continual growth of the popular Community Presbyterian Church, located at 222 W. El Pintado, right across the street from Petersen's home.

For the past 50 years CPC's membership and community involvement have consistently increased, and in turn the facility has grown bigger and bigger.

Upset residents say their once-tranquil street is now clogged with traffic, crowded by spillover cars from the church's parking lot and filled with people throughout the week.

"It's an interesting balance when you have a church and a school that does a lot of good for the community: How do you keep the feel, the atmosphere of the neighborhood?" said Mayor Candace Andersen.

More than 130 concerned homeowners banded together to battle the church's most recent project: an expansion of about 12,000 total square feet, including two new buildings and a new parking lot.

After nearly a year of negotiations among residents, CPC staff and the town, the Planning Commission finally approved the project last month. Residents decided not to appeal the decision.

Jerry McHugh, leader of the residents group, said going forward with an appeal would require even more money, time and energy, possibly for naught.

"We didn't necessarily win on every point, and we weren't always right on every point either. But at least we participated," McHugh said. Besides, "You gotta get along with your neighbors, right?"

A growing church

CPC owns 6.9 acres on West El Pintado Road. In addition to weekend worship services it hosts preschool and K-8 classes on weekdays, as well as senior and youth programs, AA meetings, job networking, financial assistance, counseling services, Bible study, childcare, men's and women's groups and other activities.

"They have all kinds of events that they allow community groups to use their rooms for," said David Crompton, principal planner for Danville. "It's kind of expanded over time."

The church was built in 1865 and moved to its current location in 1954. Under the county's jurisdiction it developed offices for fellowship in the 1960s, and in 1979 built a new sanctuary and opened the schools.

In 1999 the church filed an application to expand again. Danville, an incorporated town by then, recommended it develop a master plan outlining its scope and place in the community; for the past several years the church has been studying how to best accommodate future growth.

In April 2007 it emerged, proposing an expansion that included a partially underground parking garage and an addition that would replace a family home. After hearing feedback from the town and residents at a study session, the CPC dropped these two items and resubmitted a scaled back plan in July.

"The church made a number of changes to the plan to accommodate concerns that were raised by the neighborhood," said Crompton. "It finally made it to the commission on March 11."

The approved plan includes an 18,770-square-foot student center and a 3,350-square-foot building that will be used for fellowship gatherings and a narthex, a central entry to two currently existing. The student center building will hold youth programs, childcare, meeting rooms and administrative offices. The plan also includes a use permit to increase school attendance by 100 students.

CPC director of operations Mike Miller said the church needed more space to accommodate a growing membership, particularly for the weekday events, which lately have been meeting in inadequate spots.

"It's been a lot of work," he said. "We had a lot of resistance when we went forward in April with our ideas."

From the start, residents were concerned that an expansion would mean even more traffic congestion, parking problems and general hullabaloo. But they also made clear that they weren't fighting the church itself, or its valuable services.

"People may say we're against the church but we're not, we're for the church," said Petersen. "We're just concerned about our space."

Residents' woes

"We have lived 24/7 with the noise and traffic and pollution and everything else that goes on here," said Gary Soto, who has lived on Ilo Lane, a side street off West El Pintado, for 44 years.

He said that 20 years ago neighbors told the church it had outgrown the area and suggested it look for another piece of property.

"Way back when we told them, you're running out of room here," he said. "They just still keep pushing for more and more and more."

Residents say the church has turned into a facility that needs more parking than is available, and that it's expanded without adding the necessary parking spots to accommodate the growth.

Petersen said she has to keep watch because people will try to park in her driveway.

"They'll say, 'Well there's no place to go!' and I'll say, 'That's true, but you can't park here,'" she said.

According to residents' research, 90-125 new parking spaces are needed to support the expansion.

The church plans to add 45 spots by building a new parking lot across the street, which will replace three houses it owns, and reconfiguring the current lot. Miller said this will be sufficient. On the weekends parking isn't problematic, he said, because nearby banks on Diablo Road have given the church permission to use their lots on Sundays. And on weekdays most of the increase in attendance will be students, who don't drive.

But Petersen said the church hasn't solved the parking problem to anyone's satisfaction. Soto said that at times pulling out of his street onto West El Pintado is nearly impossible, not to mention dangerous, because the cars lining the side of road block his vision.

"If you sat out there counting cars you'd count a lot of cars, every day here," he said.

Residents are also concerned that the problem will only worsen during construction, which is expected to take about 18 months. The church plans to keep operations open as usual throughout the construction period.

Spirit of compromise

In a town like Danville that prides itself on old-fashioned charm, property owners who want to develop and expand can usually expect an outcry of opposition.

When someone submits a permit to develop, the town looks to see if the project fits with the character of the neighborhood before giving an approval, said Crompton. And while vocal opposition from residents help bring the issue to light, it isn't always enough to halt the project. The town also has to consider the property owner's rights.

This issue is even trickier when the property owner is a church and school that do a lot of good for the town.

"It's probably one of the most delicate balances that we on the council have to face - when you have two very good reasons behind something," Andersen said.

The solution is to compromise.

"It doesn't always make all the neighbors happy. There's no question," she continued. "But ultimately it comes down to what's in the best interest of the entire community."

Before giving CPC the go ahead for its expansion, the town included several conditions of approval to assuage residents' concerns.

One of the conditions is a Traffic Management Plan, which includes a traffic safety committee made up of representatives from the neighborhood and the church. They'll meet monthly to talk about the plan's effectiveness and any improvements that can be made.

In one year CPC will fund a follow-up traffic and parking study the town must approve. The church must comply with any recommendations the town makes based on the study to improve traffic and parking.

Another condition of approval is that the facility's total occupancy at any time can't exceed the available parking spaces.

"It really turned out to be a good process," Crompton said. "We got positive feedback from neighbors that felt like a lot of their concerns were heard and addressed, and the applicant basically got what they wanted."

McHugh conceded that the residents would still rather not see the project happen at all, but they are happy the town tried to address their issues.

"There's a lot of things that are very proactive that the town has built into the project to keep this thing on a steady course as this project gets built," said McHugh. "It kind of remains to be seen if all that will play out the way the town hopes."

Andersen said she encourages people throughout Danville to speak out if they have concerns about their neighborhood, the way residents along West El Pintado have done. And she encourages developers to sit down and talk to residents before submitting a plan.

"It's up to us to voice our concerns and our opinions and let that be considered," Petersen said.

"Just get involved," echoed Miller. "I think every neighbor - while there may be areas where they would say, 'I would prefer this not happen' - feels better about it now then they did when we started."