Riverview in REO Town

By Andy Balaskovitz

City Council is poised to allow Riverview Church into REO Town, despite concerns over taxation, zoning and gay rights

Despite concerns about taxation, zoning and its attitude toward homosexuality, Riverview Church appears set to receive a city permit so it can buy the old Cadillac Club in the heart of REO Town.

Lansing Mayor Virg Bernero, whose Planning Department opposes the permit, said Saturday he expects City Council will approve a special land use permit 8-0 when it’s scheduled to vote Oct. 14. Bernero expressed reservations about taking the building off the tax rolls, but did not say he opposed it.

“I am strongly ambivalent. I am vehemently agnostic,” Bernero said in an interview. “The issue, and the reason why the (planning) department said no … is it doesn’t meet the existing code or existing plan.”

He added that while he is “not a big fan of rigidity in public policy,” perhaps the church could have found space in a vacant building that’s already a non-taxable property. Bernero also believes that churches should be paying 50 percent of what taxable owners pay in property taxes.

And if the church agreed to pay some taxes? “I would be less ambivalent,” he said.

Following a public hearing last week on the permit, it appears the church has at least seven supporting votes on the Council of eight. Councilwoman A’Lynne Robinson could not be reached Tuesday for comment.

The church has agreed to create a forprofit, tax-paying entity for a portion of the property to operate a banquet center.

“The idea that they’re willing to create another LLC so the city would receive taxes on a commercial (portion)— I felt comfortable with that,” Council President Carol Wood said.

First Ward Councilwoman Jody Washington, whose ward includes REO Town, also was against another taxexempt entity in the city. “We are up to our armpits in nonprofits,” she said. But she’s persuaded that the planned increase in foot traffic will benefit the Washington Avenue corridor, which addresses the Planning Department’s opposition that the use would be incompatible with surrounding businesses. The church argues that foot traffic will support surrounding businesses.

“They’ve won my vote,” said 2nd Ward Councilwoman Tina Houghton. “I never thought of a church being a catalyst to economic development.”

Parking was a third issue expressed by Council members, particularly the vacant lot immediately south of the property. However, the church plans to landscape the west side of it facing Washington Avenue and have visitors enter on the east side of the property through an alleyway, eliminating the need for curb cuts on Washington.

The city’s planning department has issued an eight-page report recommending the Council deny the special land use permit request. Of nine “standards” to consider based on city ordinance, the report found that the church’s proposal failed to meet five of them, including not being “harmonious with the character of adjacent properties and surrounding uses”; interfering “with the general enjoyment of adjacent properties”; and being inconsistent with the zoning code and master plan.

“A storefront church in such a setting would undermine the efforts to develop a vibrant commercial area,” the staff report says.

Church officials and multiple supporters disputed this claim at the Sept.

23 public hearing, arguing that increased foot traffic will help nearby businesses, particularly on weekends, but also throughout the week.

Eddie Cloutier, a church employee, said at the public hearing that the church has already invested $20,000 to $30,000 on the project.

On July 31, REO Town resident Aaron Brown expressed another concern to the Council. Identifying himself as gay, he wrote, “This type of organization is an affront to my rights of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.” He points to the church’s website that offers help for people “struggling with same-sex attractions.”

“Having this organization with (sic) yards of my home would seek to impose unwanted stress and anxiety into my life and family.”

Multiple attempts to reach Riverview pastors on Monday and Tuesday were unsuccessful. Based on writings and a sermon by one of Riverview’s pastors, Noel Heikkinen, the non-denominational, Christian church views homosexuality as a sin — on par with others like adultery or gluttony — yet welcomes all.

“We would welcome people who struggle with homosexuality into our church (there are many of them at Riv). We do this in the same way that we welcome heterosexual people who are living together before marriage into our church as well as people who are struggling with a myriad of other sins,” Heikkinen wrote in September 2011. “However, we believe it is clear in the Scripture that the act of homosexuality is a sin just like any other type of sex outside of marriage. Therefore, we challenge people regarding their sex lives, whether they are a heterosexual couple having sex outside of marriage, a gay couple having sex, or a married person having sex with someone they are not married to.”

Penny Gardner, president of the Lansing Association of Human Rights Political Action Committee, struggles with whether the church’s position should factor in the Council’s decision.

“What’s more valuable: The separation of church and state or the concept of equality? And how do we govern that?” Gardner asked.

The city’s special land use permit ordinance says the Council may base its decision on nine zoning standards that largely deal with how the property fits within its surroundings. Wood, the Council president, said it’s the Council’s role to base its decision on those, not the church’s beliefs. “The city attorney would be the first to warn us against that,” she said.

City Attorney Janene McIntyre could not be reached for comment.

Gardner said the issue reminds her of the controversy surrounding a Council resolution, led by Washington, to cut Lansing’s Sister Cities ties with St. Petersburg, Russia, over its human rights abuses toward the LGBT community. “It just makes me smile when she and many other Council members were so up in arms about that, while maybe close to home” it appears less of an issue.

Washington, who said she hasn’t discussed with the church its position on gay rights but may now, said she isn’t “going to put (Riverview) under the same umbrella” as St. Petersburg. “Jailing and letting folks abuse them is not the same.”