Church recalibrates plan for new facility

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

With its original plan receiving a cool reception, a local church has downsized a proposal for a giant new facility in Williston.

Essex Alliance Church filed new plans on Monday that reduce the size of the original 168,000-square-foot building on Vermont 2A. The new proposal calls for a 141,500-square-foot facility that would still be one of the largest structures in town.

The Development Review Board will consider the revised proposal at a meeting Tuesday night.

Essex Alliance has outgrown its church on Old Stage Road in Essex. So last fall it proposed building a new church on a 54-acre site midway between Taft Corners and the intersection of Industrial Road. The original plan called for a sanctuary that seated 1,833 and parking for 611 vehicles.

But the Development Review Board and neighbors were alarmed by the sheer size of the facility.

“The scale is not appropriate for the area,” said DRB member Cathy O’Brien at a November public hearing. “It’s way too big … this is just enormous. I don’t think I could vote for a project of this scale.”

Fellow board member Scott Rieley likened the structure’s size to Wal-Mart. The building as originally proposed would have been half again as large as the Williston Wal-Mart’s 114,000 square feet.

Neighbors said the additional traffic generated by the new church would make it impossible to enter and exit their driveways and streets by further clogging already heavy traffic along Vermont 2A.

The new plan proposes about 16 percent less interior space. It calls for three low-slung, two-story structures connected by enclosed walkways.

The complex will include a 1,800-seat “worship auditorium,” church offices, a nursery and a cafe. It will also have a gymnasium and athletic fields.

Next week’s meeting will determine whether the new plan makes enough changes to address the town’s concerns.

Some Development Review Board members had suggested the original structure be broken up into several buildings arranged in a campus-like setting. The new plans appear at least in part to address that concern.

Planning staff members said they would prefer a parking garage rather than a traditional lot with hundreds of spaces. The new plan still shows a standard parking lot, albeit with 11 fewer spaces.

The Rev. Scott Slocum, lead pastor at Essex Alliance Church, could not be reached for comment. But the church’s Web site said the review process will shape the size of the facility. It also responded to comparisons with Wal-Mart.

“Our new home will certainly not be mistaken for a ‘big box store’ by any means,” the site says.

The proposal must navigate both town and state approval processes before anything is built.

On the town side, the project must obtain conceptual approval before moving on to preliminary and final reviews.

It is also subject to Vermont’s Act 250 land-use law. A few years ago, a 50-unit subdivision named Brandywine was proposed at the same site. The project, which was approved by the town, was denied an Act 250 permit because it was located on prime agricultural soils, said Williston Zoning Administrator D.K. Johnston.

According to its Web site, the church is hoping Williston will receive growth center designation under a new state program that encourages dense development in designated areas. The program eases Act 250 requirements for buildings like the church that fall within a growth center.

Even if Williston’s application for growth center status is approved, Essex Alliance Church would still be subject to Act 250 review, said Town Planner Lee Nellis. But he said the church would automatically become eligible to pay a mitigation fee to offset its impact on agriculture.

Essex Alliance Church was formed 40 years ago. It is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical Protestant denomination with national offices in Colorado Springs, Colo.

The Development Review Board will consider the church’s new plans on Tuesday, March 27. The meeting, which takes place at Williston Town Hall, begins at 7:30 p.m.