Spring is here! Some families are doing their annual Spring Cleaning and some of our churches are beginning new building projects. Here, in Georgia, we are surely fortunate to be part of a church that is growing annually. But, building a new church building is a truly complex project that requires extensive planning and preparation, including attention to legal issues such as land use ordinances, zoning regulations, and appropriate building construction permits.
Imagine this if you can: your congregation conducted a capital funds stewardship campaign last October and the goal of six million dollars was achieved. Then, your congregation instructed the architect to put the finishing touches on the proposal for your new education building. The finance committee and the trustees arranged bank financing for the construction loan and engaged the construction contractors. The congregation, meeting in church conference, gave the final go ahead vote and the start date was designated. Construction began on schedule and moved along rapidly until the building was ninety percent finished. At that point, without any prior warning, the neighborhood closest to the church filed a lawsuit to stop construction because the new building is five feet taller than the local ordinances allow and the church did not secure a proper variance and building permit in advance of construction. Now, the project must come to a screeching halt while the lawsuit works its way to trial. Where does that leave your congregation?
The scenario I have described is not an imaginary tale. Fortunately, it is not a local situation. The lawsuit made its way through trial court and the court of appeals. The best outcome for the church would have been for a ruling, based on the doctrine of “relative hardship”, that allowed the construction to be completed as planned, even though the church had failed to secure the required building permits, because the hardship to the neighbors would have been slight in comparison to the hardship of modifying the construction at the last stage. The worst outcome for the church would have been a ruling requiring the demolition of the new building because the church failed to proceed in good faith by not investigating the need for building permits before construction began. The actual final ruling was that the church was ordered to modify the building to comply with existing ordinances.
This example painfully illustrates that building a new church is a very complex project with thousands of details that must be attended to. Among the most important details are securing a complete and accurate understanding of the land use ordinances and building codes governing construction on the church’s property. If no one in your congregation has this understanding and expertise, then, by all means, seek the assistance of a local attorney who practices in the areas of real estate and land use. In addition, it will be very useful if there is a member of the congregation, perhaps a member of the building committee, who will act as a liaison among the church, the contractor, and the city or county officials. Don’t rely on community goodwill to excuse your congregation’s failure to plan carefully enough and don’t waste the hard earned resources of your members. Think ahead and secure the expertise, resources, and building permits you need before the construction begins.