New church passes first round of review

Downsized plan finds support, opposition

By Greg Elias
Observer staff

After hearing sometimes emotional testimony – both pro and con – the Development Review Board last week approved conceptual plans for a huge new church in Williston.

Essex Alliance Church seeks to build a 141,500-square-foot complex on 54 acres adjacent to residential neighborhoods on Vermont 2A between Taft Corners and Mountain View Road. The church has outgrown its current facility on Old Stage Road in Essex.

The church’s plans had been scaled back after the board concluded at an earlier hearing that the initial 169,000-square-foot proposal was simply too big. The new plan converted the original single structure into five smaller buildings linked by enclosed walkways.

But some neighbors who spoke at last week’s meeting said the complex was still out of scale with the surrounding area. Many of them complained that it would snarl traffic along heavily traveled Route 2A.

“It’s not the church we are against, let’s be very clear,” said Joachim Poetzsch, who lives in the Meadow Run subdivision near the site. “It is the enormity of the project.”

“I think it’s misplaced in this location,” said Carol Tandy, who also lives in Meadow Run. “I think with the scale of it, it would be nice out in the country.”

That remark drew a response from Rand Larson, who attends Essex Alliance Church and owns Vermont Eye Laser in Williston with his wife, Juli.

“Churches don’t belong in the country,” he said. “Churches belong where they can minister to people.”

Larson was among the many Essex Alliance churchgoers who crowded into the meeting room at Williston Town Hall. About 50 people in all attended the March 27 session, filling all seats and spilling into the hallway.

The Rev. Scott Slocum, senior pastor at the church, said in an interview that he informed parishioners about the meeting during Sunday services. He said those interested in going were given a chance to learn more about the project during a post-service meeting.

Some churchgoers spoke passionately about how the Essex Alliance had helped them.

“I have been going to Essex Alliance Church, and I have found a home,” said Fran Landis, who lives on Forest Run Road in Williston. “It would be such a blessing to have this church in my town.”

Landis said in an interview that when she was growing up the local church was one of the few places for teens to gather. She said the church’s extensive facilities would provide a similar benefit for Williston’s youth.

The church complex would include athletic fields and a recreation path, which would be open to the general public.

Williston resident Craig Revilla said he has attended Essex Alliance Church for 26 years. He said the church has helped his family and the community as a whole.

“I’m just looking forward to what the church can do for the people in my town,” he said.

But other residents living near the site said they were weary of the ever-increasing traffic on 2A, which makes it difficult to enter and exit their streets and driveways. They worried the church would only make things worse.

“Traffic is a major concern for us,” said Robert Coon, president of the homeowners’ association in Meadow Run. “This probably won’t increase traffic at peak hours. It will just extend it to other times.”
Mark Smith of Resource Systems Group, a traffic engineering firm hired by the church, said a previous study showed that weekend traffic along Vermont 2A on Sundays was light compared to weekdays. He said peak traffic occurs between noon and 1 p.m., after church services are completed.

Though scaled back, the church would still be by far the largest in Williston. An amphitheater would seat 1,800 worshippers. The complex would include a cafe, a children’s area and church offices. There would be parking for 600 vehicles.

In granting conceptual approval, the board required the church to conduct a complete traffic study. Another condition requires the church to include 20 units of housing.

That requirement was driven by the town’s application for growth center status. D.K. Johnston, the town’s zoning administrator, told the board that half of all future development within the growth center, an area that would include the church, must be housing.

Growth center status could also help the church because it eases Act 250 requirements.

The church project must undergo two more rounds of review – preliminary and final – by the Development Review Board. As of Tuesday, the town had yet to schedule the next hearing on the project.