920 W. Ave D
The background story of this proposed house conversion on W. Ave D from Residential Use to Non-Residential Use as a church has been a contentious one. This is the short story.
A young couple, Cole and Raven Hensen, founders of a 501(c)3 religious nonprofit hoping to operate as a pregnancy center, bought a 101-year-old house in Historic Embree, a SF-7 zoned neighborhood in old downtown. After living in the house for seven months, they applied for rezoning to Downtown District/Uptown Sub-District. Slightly over half the Embree neighborhood welcomed the idea of the pregnancy center, but the other half voiced two main objections: First that such a zoning change would open the door to future unwelcome commercial intrusions into the neighborhood, making possible a “domino effect” where Ave D would go the way of Main Street or State Street; second, that parking would intrude on the neighborhood.
Only a few people at that time objected primarily to the actual nature of the proposed use as a small-scale religious pregnancy resource center.
The Plan Commission voted to delay their decision, and to instead create a PD (Planned Development) which they'd consider for recommendation to Council rather than the DT/U zoning. It would be very similar to the zoning of another home in the neighborhood already operating as a B&B—in that case a commercial business but entirely residential in appearance. The PD zoning would enable the underlying zoning to remain SF-7 while defining narrowly the specific uses which would be allowed.
Before that recommendation got back to the Plan Commission, the Hensens changed course, withdrew their zoning request, and announced that they would instead be proceeding as a church.
That’s where the drama started. They were without question a religious ministry, but had not previously presented themselves as a “house of worship”. Cole Hensen stated for the first time that he was an ordained minister (later determined to be an instant ordination via email), and said that they would start holding Friday night worship services. The planned "caretakers cottage" was relabeled a "parsonage". They said they'd have a maximum of 16 church members.
I am told that both federal and state religious freedom laws (RLUIPA and RFRA) do not allow municipalities to judge whether a claim such as this is valid or not. That is a decision fought out in higher courts. There is a very high burden of proof to disprove a religious claim.
The Plan Commission heard the new case—no longer rezoning, but a technical case for House Conversion. Like a replat application, a house conversion is black and white; either it meets technical criteria or not. The Plan Commission unanimously approved it, but with recommended orders that restricted certain uses, including stating that “no practice of medicine will be allowed as defined by the Texas Medical Practice Act”. That was the recommendation which came to us on Council on November 19th.
Council heard the case on Nov 19th and voted 7-2 to approve the House Conversion as requested, along with the Plan Commission's 10 Proposed Orders (to be amended by the City Attorney), plus an additional 11th Order recommended by the City Attorney to require the house "footprint" to remain unchanged.
Meanwhile, one person , enraged by the Hensens' sudden claim to be a church, accused me of having coached them in how to reinvent themselves as a church. He requested records of all my correspondence with the Hensens (which I provided). From that point forward, he has used selective quotes to post an unending stream of public accusations.
The FAQ below is an attempt to set the record straight on at least few of those claims.
Q. Do you (or did you) support the Shiloh Pregnancy Center and/or Church?
A. I originally did support the Shiloh Pregnancy Center (and still do support the concept of such community services). I tried, for some time, to help the Hensens make their very best case to the neighborhood--not by lobbying for them, but by advising them to meet the neighbors, to be responsive to their concerns, and to tread lightly with their eventual zoning request. My personal support rapidly eroded, however, after their announcement in early October that they'd be rebranding their ministry as a church/ house of worship, with the proposed pregnancy center being relabeled as a “secondary” rather than primary use. Although it was apparently my own comments in a text exchange that gave them the idea, our GDC description of “church/house of worship” use seemed a clear mismatch with their original statements and plans. The subsequent changes in their plans felt forced.
Q. Did you tell the Hensens to claim to be a church? Or coach them in how to pass for a church?
A. No. My only conversation with the Hensens on this topic prior to their announcement was a text exchange (you can read it below) where I explored two by-right uses in SF-7 zoning that several different people had specifically mentioned in relation to the proposed pregnancy center. One was Home Occupation, or a home-based business. The Hensens' plans to have more than one volunteer onsite and to require additional parking disqualified them as a home-based business. The other by-right use, Church/House of Worship, was less clear. (At that time, I erroneously assumed "church" use was as crisply defined as all our other land uses.) The GDC description of Church/House of Worship referenced various “religious accessory services” that sounded somewhat similar to the Hensens’ plans, so I urged them to check with Planning & Zoning to see if their ministry might possibly fit. When I checked with P&Z that afternoon, however, the “house of worship” description clearly did not apply to stand-alone services like the pregnancy center the Hensens were proposing. In a concurrent text conversation that afternoon with Councilman Smith, I texted:
"Okay, read GDC re: churches, nope. They’re a “religious organization’ but not a house of worship. Leaving the SF-7 zoning alone and adding a PD is the lightest-touch path forward."
The next morning I texted the Hensens:
"Keeping the SF-7 underlying zoning and adding the limited PD does indeed seem to be the best (and only) path forward for you aside from the unwelcome DT/U zoning change."
See Transcript #10 (below) for complete text exchange related to "church" use
Q. Why did you suggest that the Hensens consider other "by right" alternatives in the middle of the PD process?
A. The main objection of those who opposed the initial zoning request was that the Downtown District/Uptown Sub-District zoning would open the door for unwelcome future uses (like convenience stores or apartments), leaving Ave D vulnerable to going the way of Main Street over time. At that time, a slight majority of the neighborhood was expressing support for the pregnancy center, although not necessarily for the DT/U zoning. In considering that, I wanted to double-check that the PD wouldn't be another excessive zoning request; while narrowly defined, a PD would still be a permanent zoning change for the neighborhood.
See Transcripts #1, 8 (below)
Q. Did you know in advance that they would be making the "church" announcement?
A. No. Cole Hensen emailed the city staff first, then forwarded his announcement to me in the wee hours of Mon Sep 30th. I had already scheduled a neighborhood meeting that Friday to discuss the proposed PD, and had gone to a lot of trouble to write up basic zoning process information for the neighborhood. I also invited two Plan Commissioners to come to answer questions about PDs & zoning in general. I was far from happy and immediately scheduled a meeting with our legal dept., planning department, and the Hensens. Cole's statement that he was an ordained minister was yet another surprise. I called the Executive Director (non-voting position/unpaid) of Shiloh Pregnancy Care only to learn that she'd resigned earlier in the year and was no longer affiliated with it, but I asked if she knew that Cole was an ordained minister. She said no. I asked if the Hensens had ever spoken of their ministry as a church, and she again said no.
See Transcripts #5, 6, 7, 10 (below)
Q. Did you and your husband originally offer to help fund an upgrade to a refurbished 3D ultrasound someday for this nonprofit?
A. Yes, although it wasn't tied to the Ave D location since that might or might not work out. Our offer was no secret, nor was it in any way illegal or unethical. (In retrospect it was politically unwise, but if you haven't figured out by now that I'm not much of a politician, you haven't been paying attention, lol!) It would have been a very different story if I had accepted any benefit whatsoever from them. Unfortunately, later events left us less comfortable with this nonprofit, and we withdrew our offer.
See Transcript #9 (below)
Q. Are City Council members allowed to openly support personal causes?
A. Of course. In fact, City Council members are often elected specifically because of their personal leanings or convictions on certain issues. This is not a judicial position, and there is no expectation that we should always publicly present as neutral. You'll find that few (if any) Council Members do. While I don't publicly lobby for/against upcoming cases--and didn't in this case--I do attempt to provide enough information in advance (posts and Agenda Notes) for constituents to consider the issues and respond to me with their views. More about that below:
Q. How do you decide how to vote?
A. On Council, each of us has our own way of determining where we stand and how we will vote on issues coming before us. My practice has been to post and email detailed work session & regular meeting Agenda Notes twice a month, highlighting District 2-specific issues in advance of the meetings. In each set of notes I've shared my current thoughts on each item and my tentative voting position (if I've formed one). I've also specifically invited feedback from constituents in case I've missed something or am viewing it wrongly. I greatly value the collective wisdom of the district and have sought to be guided by it. Never once, in the year and a half I've served, have I voted over the district's heads in order to please myself. I'm crystal clear on the difference between what I personally support and my voting position on Council.
See Transcript #2 (below)
Q. Was this vote unusual in any way?
A. This vote was unusual in every way. For starters, the neighborhood's first responses came in roughly equal--very rare in zoning cases. Inside the 400' notification area the written responses were, I believe, 10/13 (for/against by households), while the wider neighborhood, including the notification area, was initially 20/19 (by formal and informal responses I'd gathered). However, I later learned that some neighbors owned additional properties in the neighborhood, and when I adjusted the larger total to reflect that, it shifted to 25/23 (for/against). One informal "yes" at that time was for Terry's and my house, but I didn't count our 6 other houses in the neighborhood for fear of skewing the results. Removing our vote entirely left us at 24/23. As a result, I started puzzling over my best approach to determining my upcoming voting position. You can read the link below (#11) to see my real-time thought process re: "weighting" votes by proximity to the house in question. I did decide that if the neighborhood remained evenly split, my vote by default would have to be "no".
See Transcript #11 (below)
Political Ad Paid for by Deborah Morris for City Council
Copyright © 2018 Deborah Morris