Giant church raises big concerns

Building would be larger than box stores

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

Too big. Too much traffic. Just plain too much.

That was the reaction of some neighbors and Development Review Board members to a proposed 168,000-square-foot church on a busy stretch of Vermont 2A north of Taft Corners.

Essex Alliance Church has outgrown its current location on Old Stage Road in Essex. It wants to construct a new building large enough to house the church’s myriad programs and to seat 1,833 people for each Sunday service.

The Williston Development Review Board met on Tuesday night to consider conceptual plans for the church and to gather public input.

Some board members said the church would dwarf buildings in the surrounding neighborhoods and as configured would have a tough time winning approval.

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

Board member Scott Rieley likened the structure to a big-box store. “At first blush, it looks like a Wal-Mart,” he said “I think that’s going to come up. It’s a big building. It’s huge.”

The church would actually be almost 50 percent bigger than the Williston Wal-Mart, which is 114,000 square feet.

Board members suggested the building could be broken up into smaller structures in a campus-like arrangement.

Church representatives said one big building was the least expensive and most effective way to accommodate the church’s needs. They hinted that requiring more than one structure could scuttle the project.

“I think what’s important is this is the most cost-effective scenario,” said Jeff Kolok, chairman of the church’s building committee. “If the feedback from the town is that the scale is too big … we would have to consider the feasibility.”

The Rev. Scott Slocum, Essex Alliance’s senior pastor, said the church would benefit Williston. Plans include a recreational field, a gymnasium and space inside the building where community groups such as the Boy Scouts could meet. He said the facilities would be open to the general public.

Parking and traffic were the other major concerns. The proposal calls for 611 parking spaces. The town’s planning staff wants the church to build a parking garage. But church representatives said such a requirement might also make the plan too expensive.

About 15 residents attended the hearing, most from neighborhoods near the church, which would be located about halfway between Taft Corners and Industrial Avenue along Vermont 2A. Some people were annoyed because the hearing started at 9:50 p.m., well past its scheduled time of 9 p.m. “Time!” called out one man. “It’s a half an hour late,” said another.

A few of the neighbors spoke. Most mentioned the already clogged traffic on Vermont 2A and said the church would make the situation much worse.

“Already the traffic on 2A is pretty much impossible in terms of getting out of our neighborhood,” said LouAnn Chaffee, who lives in the Meadow Run subdivision.

Some people may have stayed home because the church was the last item on the agenda. John Adams, the town’s development review planner, said a couple of the roughly 10 residents who inquired about the project before the meeting told him they could not attend the session because it was too late.

Essex Alliance Church was formed 40 years ago, initially conducting services in a school before moving to its current site on Old Stage Road in Essex. It is a member of the Christian and Missionary Alliance, an evangelical Protestant denomination.

The board decided to continue its discussion of the church and did not vote on the plan, which would have to complete three rounds of review before anything is built.

The proposal will be considered again at the board’s Jan. 9 session. The hearing is scheduled for
7:30 p.m.