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City eyes limits on churches

The Evanston City Council tonight is scheduled to consider zoning ordinance changes that would make all existing churches in business and commercial districts non-conforming uses.

As such they’d have to seek a special use permit from the city for any expansion and would face restrictions on rebuilding if destroyed by fire or other causes. They’d also lose the right to operate the property as a religious institution if the building wasn’t used for over a year.

Any new religious institution proposed for a business or commercial district would be required to seek approval from the City Council as a special use.

The ordinance change is being recommended by the city’s Plan Commission. In a memo to the council, Assistant City Manager Marty Lyons says the commission was concerned about the increasingly wide range in the size and scale of religious institutions — from storefront churches in neighborhood shopping districts to "mega-churches" in "big-box" store sites.

It suggests that churches may have different off-street parking requirements than other uses in commercial districts.

It also argues that it’s become common practice among local governments to more tightly regulate religious uses in commercial districts than in residential zones and that the proposed changes would bring the city in line with those trends.

Some aldermen have expressed concerns recently about the appearance of store-front churches in some of the city’s less-successful commercial districts. An addition several aldermen have voiced concerns about the impact on the city’s tax base of churches and other tax-exempt institutions in the community.

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