Forsyth County residents raised concerns Wednesday about a proposed 24,000-square-foot church to be built along Bennett Road.
At the regularly scheduled October meeting of the Forsyth County Planning Commission, commissioners considered a conditional-use permit, or CUP, for Iglesia Luz Y Vida to develop an 8-acre plot with a 24,475-square-foot church and 134 parking spaces. The congregation currently meets on Buford Dam Road.
Opponents stuck to a message that the north Forsyth area should “remain rural at all costs,” wearing buttons, shirts, and carrying signs that read, ‘Keep It Rural.’
Local homeowner Andy Coleman summed up opposition to the CUP as being about issues of setting precedence, structure size, parking spaces, traffic and inadequate septic and sewer systems.
“As you see here tonight, our community has banded together in large numbers to protect our property rights and see to it that our appointed and elected officials hear our voices," Coleman said. "Better due diligence should have been practiced before purchasing this land.”
Multiple other residents who own land bordering the plot said they expect their lives to be impacted by the new development, citing loss of privacy, worries about the contamination of local water sources and expectations of lowered property values.
Christina Gemming-McCartney, who lives off Bennett Road, said the trees on the property do not screen two existing structures and what has been proposed as the area for the church’s parking lot from her dining room view.
"When they had a get-together in March of this year ... and leaves were not on the trees, this entire area, you could see a sea of cars when you walked into my front door," Gemming-McCartney said. "That takes away my peaceful enjoyment of the house. So that’s what I could look forward to for all the rest of the time, if this is passed."
Gemming-McCartney said that she would not have purchased a house that bordered a large church and expected her property value to decrease.
"It's just too intrusive, it really is," Gemming-McCartney said. "... I feel like it does very clearly take away from my peace.”
According to Gene Barrington, the site architect, the current plan is to use the two existing structures on the site for church functions until the larger church facility can be built.
Barrington said that the initial "dream and long-term plan" was to develop the entire 8-acre plot with buildings and activity spaces, but after meetings with the public and planning commission staff, the church has agreed to limit development to the front of the property.
Commission Chairwoman Bettina Hammond said there are still many things that the commission has yet to see, making it impossible to make a final recommendation.
“There’s lots of things I don’t know because one, we didn’t get an elevation, we don’t know what it’s going to look like so I have to depend on maybe a condition to determine what it would look like,” Hammond said. "There's still a lot of discussions going on, but what I am under is a deadline that this board has to make a decision by the 13th of November."
Hammond also stated they began the process in May with a plan for buildings spanning 52,000 square feet, but through community meetings, that plan has been narrowed to 24,475 square feet and with 134 parking spaces over the 8-acre property.
Barrington responded to opponents’ concerns, telling commissioners that the church would comply with any county staff recommendations for sewer and traffic issues that may arise and that the main driveway has been relocated away from the homes on Bennett Road.
The commission also heard support from Jim Thompson, a 20-year resident of Forsyth County, who said that he had gotten to know the members of the church over the last few years, letting them use a building he owns in Dawsonville to have service in.
"In all my years knowing the people in the church fellowship, they have been very dependable, very upright and have always left things better than when they came in,” Thompson said. “... I think the attitude for the majority of the church I know of is very positive in the way that they take care of things.”
Iglesia Luz Y Vida Church pastor Martin Acevedo told the commission that the church would function just like any other church in the county, with several services and activities throughout the week on Tuesday, Wednesday, Friday and Sunday at different times.
“We believe that we are going to be a blessing to the county,” Acevedo said. “We believe that we are going to be a blessing to everyone.”
The commissioners ended the discussion on the CUP by unanimously approving a motion to delay their decision on the property until the Nov. 13 meeting.
“I’ve heard from many of you on what you want. What Forsyth County can do and take has been explained to me,” Hammond said. “I guess basically we need more discussion. We need to talk some more about this piece of property.”