Lexington's city planning staff recommended Friday that the Board of Adjustment postpone action on a church's request for a conditional use permit to use the former Julia R. Ewan Elementary School on Henry Clay Boulevard.
In a report that asks for a delay of three to six weeks, the planning staff said it wanted more time to evaluate how on-street parking might affect the neighborhood, and the effect of the church's possible use of green space for parking.
Vineyard Community Church now meets at 817 Winchester Road. Its 500 worshippers are distributed among three services, one on Saturday evening and two on Sunday morning.
However, the church has grown from 12 members in a little over eight years. Neighbors are concerned about parking and traffic problems if the church continues to grow.
Vineyard officials met with the Fairway Neighborhood Association on Monday night in the school cafeteria to answer questions about the church's plans.
In February, Vineyard requested a conditional-use permit for the Rainbo Bakery property on West Sixth Street; the deal fell through because environmental issues turned up. The church said then that about 150 cars have been counted at Sunday morning services at its current location.
Because there are just 100 parking spaces on the school property, on-street parking would play a "critical role," according to the city report. Directly in front of the building are about 15 parking spaces on Henry Clay Boulevard, but residents say they routinely use them. "So it can't be assumed that all of those spaces will always be available" for church use, the report said.
In response to a request by the neighborhood association, the planning department's transportation section projected 315 automobile trips during the Sunday peak hour, with 164 cars entering the church property and 151 leaving.
The report said that if Vineyard grows to 500 worshippers for a particular service, the 100-space school parking lot will not be adequate.
That raises the possibility that the church would expand parking into green space at the back of the school property. The land was used by Julia R. Ewan students and continues to be used by the neighborhood as a local park.
At Monday night's meeting, Vineyard officials said they could get an additional 50 to 60 parking spaces by using this open space, if needed.
Paving the space might create storm water drainage issues, the report said.
Given the questions about parking, the potential growth of the church and the future use of the property's open space, the report said it would be hard to predict whether the church could move into the school building "without adversely affecting this established residential community."
The report said the planning staff had received "a nearly unprecedented" number of letters and e-mails from neighbors around the school, some favoring the conditional use permit, many opposed, a few asking for a postponement.
Many objections expressed fear about who would attend church services and who the church would minister to — Vineyard reaches out to the poor and marginalized — but those concerns are not relevant to granting a conditional use permit and should not be considered by the Board of Adjustment, the planning staff's report said.
Attempts to reach Vineyard officials were not successful Friday.
Valerie Askren, president of the Fairway Neighborhood Association, said the planning report was "very thoughtful."
"They really understand the complexity of this decision, and we really appreciate them taking extra time" in preparing the report, she said.
The community is fortunate to have churches like Vineyard with a strong social ministry, she said. "The issue that our neighborhood is struggling with is the scale of what Vineyard wants to accomplish" in an older neighborhood with narrow streets.
The Board of Adjustment will consider Vineyard's conditional use request at 1 p.m. Friday in the council chambers of the Government Center.