Evanston aldermen Monday postponed action on zoning changes that would create hurdles to establishing churches in commercial districts after more than two dozen local religious leaders signed a letter of protest.

The Rev. Mark Dennis

The Rev. Mark Dennis, senior pastor at 2nd Baptist Church, 1717 Benson Ave., and others objected that no one from the religious community had been consulted about the change.

The objections came as the City Council was about to give final approval to an ordinance backed by Alderman Ann Rainey, 8th Ward, that would have turned churches from a permitted use to a “special use” in business and commercial districts across the city.

Under Section 6-3-5 of the city code, the council has nearly unlimited discretion to reject a proposed special use if aldermen decide they don’t like it.

Alderman Ann Rainey

Rainey has claimed that a proliferation of storefront churches is exerting a blighting influence on the Howard Street business district in her ward, because they are closed most of the week and therefore don’t generate foot traffic for other businesses.

The ordinance was approved by the Zoning Committee of the Plan Commission on Sept. 15 and by the full Plan Commission Oct. 15. It was introduced at the City Council Oct. 25.

Rev. Karen Mosely Avery of 2nd Baptist Church said the ordinance would impact all future religious institutions and would have long-term ramifications for all churches in the city.

She said the members of the Evanston Pastors Fellowship don’t agree with the claim in the ordinance that churches don’t enhance the functioning of a vibrant commercial district or that they have a deadening affect.

She called it an egredious act to pass such legislation without giving serious consideration to the questions and concerns from church groups.

Pastor Mark Coppenger of Evanston Baptist Church, which meets in the basement of the Fountain Square Building downtown, noted that Evanston was founded “by a bunch of Methodist divines” and said “we’re trying to bring grace and truth” to the community.

Pastor Mark Coppenger

He said his church has paid almost $100,000 in rent to the Fountain Square Building, which has in turn paid property taxes to the city.

Rainey responded that landlords, when they fall on hard times are “renting to whoever shows up with a pile of cash.”

Restaurants require a special use permit from the city, Rainey said, adding, “What makes churches better than that?”

“We can’t sentence Howard Street to its demise,” she said, claiming that “in the last five years there hasn’t been a single change on the street.”

After several aldermen called for postponing a vote on the measure until after there’d been time to review the religious leaders’ concerns, Rainey proposed that they take a tour of Howard Street to see the problems she’s faced with.

City Manager Wally Bobkiewicz agreed to coordinate arrangements for such a tour.

Bill Smith is the editor and publisher of Evanston Now.

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