MIGHT CHURCHES BE BANNED altogether in King County's rural areas? That's one prospect being discussed in the wake of last week's decision by a county hearing examiner to allow an 80,000-square-foot church to be built (with conditions), east of Redmond—a decision that one attorney predicts could prove "disastrous" for the city of Seattle, and that others call "schizophrenic."
Hearing Examiner Margaret Klockars ruled that under the state constitution's guarantees of religious freedom, the county could not regulate the size of Timberlake Church's building but could require that it be essentially "invisible" to neighbors. King County had recommended a 48,500-square-foot limit; the local Citizens for Responsible Rural Area Development (CRRAD) insisted even this was too large and would ruin the rural setting. (See "Frisky Business," SW, 7/9.)
Klockars' decision prompted County Council member Brian Derdowski, who heads a committee studying church siting in rural areas, to call for "responsible" church leaders to help draw up a new, "workable" ordinance for such sitings or else face an outright ban on new rural churches. Derdowski's advisers tell him such a ban would be constitutional.
King County Council chair Louise Miller, in whose district the church would be located, indicated even before the decision came down that the county should use the courts to clarify how much weight religious freedom holds in land-use decisions, perhaps by appealing a case like this. Deputy Prosecutor Darren Carnell, who wrote the county's brief in support of county regulation of church size, says no decision has been made on whether to appeal. Timberlake Church issued a statement saying it's "very pleased" and looks forward to "having a community church in a rural setting."
Besides the constitutional issues of religious freedom vs. the government's authority to regulate land use, there's another complication. Hearing Examiner Klockars is a Seattle assistant city attorney specializing in land use who, her office says, is "on vacation and moonlighting" on this case. In the future, warns CRRAD attorney Richard Aramburu, if the city of Seattle attempts to regulate church size, the Timberlake decision could be the basis "for city liability in acting arbitrarily and capriciously because one of their own city attorneys said you couldn't regulate it. If you are a lawyer on the other side, and some city attorney says we are going to regulate you, the smoking pistol no. 1 is going to be the opinion of one of your own city attorneys. This is just bizarre. You could have a huge megachurch such as Overlake Christian Church [at more than 200,000 square feet the largest church in the state] locating anywhere in the city of Seattle and getting away with it."
Aramburu had asked Klockars to recuse herself.