Essex Alliance Church one step closer to reality (3/11/10)

March 11, 2010

By Tim Simard

Observer staff

The Development Review Board granted a discretionary permit at its meeting Tuesday night for what will be Vermont’s largest church. Essex Alliance Church, which plans to build a 119,000-square-foot facility off Vermont 2A near Taft Corners, can now move forward with the state permitting process.

Church officials on Tuesday expressed their desire to begin the project soon, citing growing church membership. Currently, worshippers attend the church on Old Stage Road in Essex or watch a simulcast feed at the Essex Cinemas.

“We’d like to build within a year,” church representative Jeff Kolok said. “We want our final plans done as soon as possible.”

Tuesday’s discussion was the second part of the church’s presentation to the board. Officials described much of the project at a Jan. 26 meeting.

Plans call for a 1,200-seat worship center, along with children and adult ministry centers, administrative offices, an extensive lobby and a café. Also on the 54-acre site will be recreation fields, multi-use paths and parking for nearly 700 vehicles.

As part of its design, the church looks to build at a height of 52 feet, which exceeds the limit allowed within the Taft Corners Zoning District. To obtain an exception to the height limit, the church must build eight housing units, six of which will be considered perpetually affordable.

Williston bylaws state that builders only need to construct at least four units, with three being affordable. The Development Review Board at previous meetings, however, asked the church to build more units due to the size of the project.

Before it can build to the desired height, the church must first construct the homes, which are planned as duplexes located off Beaudry Lane near the site’s main entrance. But Kolok said the church believed, according to the bylaws, it only needed to build three affordable housing units — not six — before receiving its height permit. He disagreed with Williston planners’ recommendations.

“It sounds like we should have stayed with building just the four units and not done the good thing and gone with eight units,” Kolok said. “This puts a burden on us.”

Williston Planning Director Ken Belliveau called the issue one of fairness. Since part of the project deals with housing, the church must be treated like any developer.

“We have to have some assurance that they’re going to do what they said they’re going to do,” Belliveau said after the meeting. “It’s not that I feel suspicious or untrusting of the church or anything like that, it’s just the way you do business.”

Church representatives also discussed the board’s concerns around traffic and parking. Officials said traffic would reach its peak during Sunday morning church services. To help with the congestion, a police officer would be hired during peak hours to direct traffic. A southbound turning lane off Vermont 2A would also need to be built.

Board chairman Kevin McDermott said any changes to the highway are a state issue. If Vermont Agency of Transportation officials reject the proposed turning lane, the church would need to go before the board to present a new traffic plan.

Now that Essex Alliance Church has its discretionary permit, it will go before the state for its environmental certification, known as an Act 250 permit. Following that process, the church will then return to the Development Review Board to present its final plans.