It was a question of church and state as Rocky View County (RVC) councillors engaged in a debate about the future of commercial development in the Balzac East industrial park during a public hearing on Sept. 13.
Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo St. Michael Church, finding its current expansion needs in Calgary too costly and difficult, bought property in the Balzac East industrial park.
The problem was where the congregation wanted to build, in what is known as Cell C in the County’s plans, where a church was not a permitted use.
Thus, the issue came before RVC council to decide. Complicating the issue was the fact that Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo St. Michael Church would not be the only church in the commercial park, with eight other churches already existing in close proximity to their site, according to the County, and with four directly across from the proposed St. Michael site in what is known as Cell A, where a church is a permitted use.
Sangeeta Vishwakarma, a planning officer with RVC, said the problem is the County built the Balzac East Commercial Campus with the intent of providing space for commercial development, thereby increasing tax revenues for the County. Churches under the Municipal Government Act are exempt from paying any property taxes.
“The project doesn’t align with the financial stability goals of the County Plan Section 6, which promotes an increase in the County’s business (tax) assessment base,” Vishwakarma explained before making her recommendation to councillors that they not approve the land redesignation for the church.
“Nor does it align with council’s strategic objective promoting orderly, economic development in the County,” she continued. “The proposal (seeks) institutional land use, which…in a location that is described as the heart of the commercial and industry area is not considered appropriate; especially when there are other nearby areas within the Balzac East (Area Structure Plan) that specifically support the use.”
Bart Carswell, of Carswell Planning, represented the applicants during the Sept. 13 public hearing. He confessed to being surprised by the recommendation to not approve his client’s application from RVC’s planning department. Carswell reminded councillors that economic development was not the only thing a successful municipality needs.
“We have to look after its people and spiritual needs as well,” he said. “I really think that should be taken into context.”
Carswell went on to explain the parcel the church owns is only five acres, and likely would not support the kind of enterprise the County would otherwise be trying to attract to improve its tax base in East Balzac.
“It is a small site, and it wouldn’t support a large, industrial property by any means,” he stated, before urging council to approve the application.
After receiving no submissions from the public either in support or against the Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo St. Michael Church’s application, Mayor and Division 2 Coun. Don Kochan closed the public hearing and asked for a motion from council to be made on the issue.
Area Coun. (Division 5) Greg Boehlke agreed with County planning staff’s recommendation, and moved that it not be approved.
“This is a great example of a good purpose, and I believe it is in the wrong location,” he said.
Deputy Mayor and Division 3 Coun. Crystal Kissel strongly disagreed.
“We have an arbitrary line that somebody drew in the middle of what should then all be designated one thing, (land for development which allows multiple uses, including churches like in Cell A),” she said. “That’s what happened here. Do I think this is going to cause a huge problem for everything going on in the (Balzac East Area Plan)? I don’t.”
Boehlke took exception to Kissel’s use of the word “arbitrary” when referring to the Balzac East Area Structure Plan.
“Lines are put on development, especially, to delineate different uses in different places,” he stated. “I am absolutely not against the church … I think this is a land use issue here.
“If we make plans and we keep altering them, and bending them all the time – a previous reeve and councillor made a statement one time, ‘Death by a thousand cuts’ – the next thing you know, your industrial area is (eaten) up with things that aren’t paying taxes.”
Boehlke then called for a vote on his motion. It was defeated 5-2, with only Boehlke and Division 7 Coun. Al Schule voting in favour.
Kissel then introduced a motion that the land use redesignation be approved for Eritrean Orthodox Tewahdo St. Michael Church. The motion passed unanimously with all councillors in support.
Reached after the meeting, church representative Vinian Yenane said his congregation was overjoyed to be able to go forward and build the new facility with the County's blessing.
"I am grateful to the councillors and County officers who supported us with this, and for giving us the go to build this church," he said. "It has been an amazing journey. And I guarantee one thing: our community is just so excited, and so thrilled to bring that wonderful community (to Rocky View County.)"