No-go on groceries, church told

Friday, October 12, 2007

"I have nothing against this except where it is being done," commissioner Skip Smallwood said.

Today is grocery day at Christ Church of the Heartland.

Between 100 and 150 families are expected to pick up boxes of food sent from Georgia-based Angel Food Ministries.

On Wednesday, members of Cape Girardeau's planning and zoning commission praised the program for helping needy families. Then the commissioners voted to deny the church's request for a special-use permit to continue the four-year-old program.

"I'm totally in favor of a needs-based program ... but if I can go buy a package or several packages of steak without trying to prove need, that's a retail operation," commissioner Harry Rediger said.

The church, at 720 Bertling St., is in a residential zone. The Rev. Zack Strong said he did not think he needed a special-use permit to sell the food.

'Not a business'

On Monday, Strong will have the chance to ask the city council for a public hearing on the matter. The planning and zoning commission decisions serve as recommendations to the city council.

Strong insisted during his 17-minute presentation, which included a slide show and video, that the program was not a business.

He said the preordered groceries are distributed once a month between 10 a.m. and 7 p.m.

Strong said his church has sold 2,110 boxes of food to 315 households in six months, 20,270 boxes total since 2003.

Strong said there were no limits to the $25 boxes of groceries and that the program was open to anyone, regardless of income.

Commissioner Skip Smallwood, voicing a comment echoed in his fellow board members' remarks, said, "I have nothing against this except where it is being done."

He said residents have "a certain expectation" of zoning rules being enforced.

Sylvan Lane resident John Cook, one of four residents who spoke to oppose the church's grocery sales, said more facts were needed on how the church operates.

"As soon as this church gives away food to people -- to the needy -- I will walk down the street and help them," Cook said. "And help pay for the food."

Due process

Commissioner Ralph Maxton said the issue came down to seeing the grocery operation separately from the church operation.

Cathy Ring told the board her mom has used the program three times. Neither woman belongs to the church, Ring said.

On Thursday, Ring expressed dismay over the commission's vote. Her mother, Aurelia Jones, is a fiercely independent 77-year-old whose only income is her Social Security check.

"My question is, in four years, that this program has been available, why is it so important now to stop it?" Ring asked.

Smallwood explained at the meeting that residents expect zoning rules to be consistent. He wondered "how this operation has flown under the radar for four years."

Ken Eftink, the city's development services director, said the church has 10 days to request a public hearing at a city council meeting. The council can accept or reject the commission's recommendation.

As long as the church is following due process, it can continue the grocery distribution. But if the church withdraws from the process, "they need to stop the program," Eftink said.

Strong said complaints about the food program is fallout from an expansion project started a year ago that angered neighbors.

Eroding communication

Sylvan Lane resident Joan Jones said the church had not communicated directly with neighbors until letters were sent inviting them to an informational meeting Monday.

Both Strong and Jones said communications between the church and its neighbors have eroded since construction started last year.

"We're all church-going, very Christian people and we are all for making the church grow," Jones said. "The commission put it right on the mark when they said 'enough is enough.'"

"I'm sorry for our community," Strong said. "I'm sorry for everybody that a story like this has to come forth."

Both Jones and Ring said they will be at Monday's meeting. Strong said there's "a good chance" he'll be there, too, but added, "we're looking at all the legalities."

335-6611, extension 127

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